Nashville's Renewed War Memorial Auditorium

by Dan Daley
in The Biz

Dan DaleyThink of a venerable live-music venue in downtown Nashville, one with a tremendous history going back to the 1920s and where the Grand Ole Opry once took up an extended residence. Slam-dunk question? Not so fast — turns out there’s two good answers to that question now. Sure, there’s the Ryman Auditorium, most closely associated with the Opry and a venue that’s reinvented itself as a locus for well-curated shows and burnished by an association with the upswing of the Americana genre, all of which helped it win Pollstar’s Theatre of the Year award in 2010 and 2011. But there’s another venue that matches the Ryman in terms of history and is trying to do the same in becoming a destination for music.

Nashville's Renewed War Memorial AuditoriumThe War Memorial Auditorium isn’t quite as old as the Ryman, which was built in 1892 as a church tabernacle. But when War Memorial opened in 1925, it came out of the starting gate as a performance hall, with what were hailed then as magnificent acoustics. That natural amplification was both a help and hindrance when the venue hit its stride as a rock-music hall in the 1970s and 1980s. (Side note: I actually played on the stage there with Charlie Daniels in 1982 at one of his Volunteer Jams.) But it fell into disuse and disrepair by the end of that decade, its lights lit for intermittent official events by the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, known as TPAC and the administrative owner of the state-owned building.

In 1999, Brent Hyams came there as head of marketing and started it on a long and self-described limping road to a slow rejuvenation. Now the COO of the facility, operating under a contract from the state, he’s well aware of the inevitable comparisons between it and the Ryman. “Not everyone knows there’s more than one historical music venue in this town,” he says, with a tone that lets you know he’s had to point that out often. But he and a small, hard-working team are dedicated to getting that word out, and they are doing that by emphasizing the very thing that the Ryman also hangs its existential hat on: the narrative of its history.

Gold Medal Venue

The building was recognized with a Gold Medal Award from the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) in 1925, the highest honor that the AIA can bestow. From 1939 to 1943, the War Memorial Auditorium served as the fourth home of the Grand Ole Opry, but ensuing decades saw shows there by artists ranging from Bette Davis and Liberace to David Bowie (circa Ziggy Stardust), Ray Charles, Kiss and Barry Manilow.

On May 3, 2010, after the current Grand Ole Opry House flooded (along with many other buildings in Nashville), the Opry returned to the War Memorial Auditorium for its first public performance there in over 66 years, and continued as one of the venues that hosted the Opry until the current Opry House was restored. Since Hyams and company got it up to speed, with help from locally based Brantley Sound, its stage has hosted more contemporary shows by Mumford & Sons, Jason Mraz, Them Crooked Vultures, The Dead Weather, Atoms for Peace, Marilyn Manson, Robert Plant and others.

The auditorium originally seated 2,200; that’s been reduced to about 1,600, with the main floor now in an open configuration. But the biggest changes have been in its infrastructure. Originally, War Memorial Auditorium had no fly space and couldn’t support overhead onstage rigging. The house’s two fly points have now been boosted to six — an agonizingly slow process, because the venue is landmarked.

“When we first got here the place was a mess,” says Hyams. “It was a real roadhouse, ridden hard. We knocked down walls, painted. We’re making it what it once was — a place to perform.”

Emotional Connection

Hyams says the emphasis on the building’s history isn’t simply sentimental. At a time when live music has become the main revenue generator for the music business and new and renovated venues are mushrooming around the country, the portraits of artists and events past — now newly curated on the walls backstage — are there to create an environment that suggests that those who play there today are part of a larger, more durable narrative. That’s a feeling he wants to extend to audiences as well.

“The venue is almost as important as the artist you’re going to see,” he says, speaking generally about music venues. At a time when music discovery is moving to digital, through portals like Shazam, he wants the music venue to once again become a place of discovery. Thirty-five years ago, patrons who came there to see a Procol Harem also encountered opening acts like The Eagles, most likely for the first time. He’d like to see that sense of unexpected delight become a trademark of the facility again.

Sound is a big part of that. Brantley has brought in an Adamson line array with Y10 boxes, Spectrix down fills and EAW KF850’s for side fills powered by Camco Vortex 6 amplifiers and Dolby Lake processing. There’s a Yamaha PM5D at FOH. Brantley system engineer Eric Vogel says headliners had been bringing their own sound rigs, but recently, the trend has been towards using the house system.

“We’ve gotten the venue to where it’s virtually turnkey now for artists coming,” says Hyams.

The War Memorial Auditorium has plenty of history to bank on, and these days, as music turns back to vinyl and Paul McCartney tops the charts, that’s got serious value. It also doesn’t hurt that, as part of TPAC, it’s a non-profit. And it’s been able to sell itself as a location for music videos and few episodes of ABC TV’s soap opera Nashville. But the Ryman isn’t its only competitor — there’s a huge sea change taking place in music consumption now, and there’s no sure-fire formula for leveraging it. It’s possible that Hyams is right — the venue is nearly tantamount in importance to the artist. The trick is how to effectively get that across to both artists and patrons. There’s a lot of noise out there, and getting through it can be challenging, but if you can get performers and their fans emotionally invested in the venue, like Bill Graham once did, you’ve got the foundation for a nice, long ride.