The Spirits of Country Music
The house lights dim, the curtains open and music fills the air. It’s just another performance at the Grand Ole Opry House.
Or is it?
At Halloween, ghosts and their stories abound -- and country music is no different. While the usual country concert is filled with songs of broken hearts and strong spirits, some performances at the Grand Ole Opry House and the Ryman Auditorium are filled with spirits of a different nature.
Employees at the Opry House contend that the late Roy Acuff has never really left the building and frequently refuses to allow the curtains to be drawn on his beloved Grand Ole Opry. After the performance, when the artists and fans have already headed home, employees report that they will sometimes turn off the lights and prepare to lock the doors, only to hear the sounds of the stage curtains opening. A quick check will reveal the curtains indeed are open and the lights are on, as if the King of Country Music himself were about to take the stage for another show.
Across town at the Opry’s former home, the Ryman Auditorium, are additional reports of other unusual activity, with no less than three ghosts said to visit the building known as the Mother Church of Country Music. Capt. Thomas G. Ryman opened the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892, intending the building to be used for religious activities. Renamed the Ryman Auditorium upon his death in 1904, the building soon became an entertainment venue, but the captain reportedly made his presence known following any performances that didn’t meet his approval. Legend has it that Ryman was so disturbed by one rather risqué musical event in the early 1900s that he proceeded to thrash about, creating so much noise that patrons couldn’t hear the performance.
A ghost of a quieter nature is a figure known as the Gray Man. While numerous employees and artists have reported seeing someone dressed in gray sitting in the Ryman’s balcony during rehearsals, this gentleman has never been seen attending an actual performance -- and has, in fact, never been found. A quick search of the balcony always reveals an empty seat, with no one dressed in gray anywhere inside the building.
The most famous ghost of the Ryman may also be country music’s busiest. Several Ryman employees report seeing white apparitions, but a few claim that they’ve come face to face with the actual ghost of Hank Williams Sr. Some say they have encountered Williams backstage, while one employee seems to think the white mist she saw onstage was Williams singing. A recent visitor is convinced that he ran into Williams in the alley between the Ryman and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, another of Williams’ haunts.
The legend of Williams’ ghost has also inspired two major country hits -- David Allan Coe’s “The Ride” (1983) and Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery” (1992) -- so it’s not surprising that reported sightings are not limited to Nashville. Williams is also said to haunt the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tenn., where he spent his last night prior to dying in the back seat of a car while being driven to Canton, Ohio for a concert on Jan. 1, 1953. Williams’ ghost has been reportedly seen in private homes in Tennessee and Alabama, as well as various honky-tonks throughout the South.
The Ryman and Tootsie’s aren’t the only country music hot spots in downtown Nashville considered to be haunted. Lawrence Record Shop owners say they’ve smelled cigar smoke in a non-smoking building, noting that the store’s late owner was a known cigar smoker. Employees at Hatch Show Print don’t feel their building is haunted, but they aren’t ruling out the continued presence of William Hatch, who operated the century-old printing business until his death in 1952. The wind has a habit of blowing the door open when something is being done of which Hatch may not have approved, and employees will say, “Will Hatch is rolling over in his grave.”
Ernest Tubb Record Shop employee Kelly Keene is certain that the shop’s longtime home on Broadway is haunted. A recent visitor to the store was given a rare glimpse of the basement. As they descended the stairs, the stranger asked Keene if the area had ever been used as a morgue. Keene went on to recount part of the building’s history, which included its use as a military hospital during the Civil War. As it turns out, the basement of the record shop had once served as the hospital’s morgue.
One of Keene’s coworkers doesn’t believe in ghosts but acknowledges there are odd things about the building, including hot and cold spots on the stairs and a CD player that has a will of its own. During conversations with customers, employees will occasionally mention an older artist’s name, only to have the CD player suddenly play one of the mentioned artist’s songs next in a random 100-disc shuffle.
But downtown isn’t the only place in Nashville to find ghosts. Music Row has its fair share of hauntings as well. Although the building that housed the old Gilley’s nightclub has been demolished, some Music Row veterans recall it as the site of a bizarre wrestling match between the club manager’s son and a spirit dressed as a Civil War soldier. The soldier disappeared, but the young man’s black eye was very real. At the offices of a prominent record company, lights often turned on and off in empty offices, doors opened and closed unexpectedly, and locks changed themselves. All of the occurrences so unnerved the employees that label executives finally enlisted psychics to cleanse the building of negative spirits. The cleansing was reported to be successful.
Nashville is a spirited city, but it’s not the only place with a ghost story or two. Perhaps you have a country music ghost story you’d care to share.