The Bold Woman Who Made Country Music History

Written by Rich Procter

Welcome to National Women’s History month. For our 2015 show “The Soul of Nashville,” we found out about one of the most extraordinary women in American history. Her story was so compelling, we made her star of the show. How could we not? Lula C. Naff was, in the words of the Grand Ole Opry’s on-line biography, “tough, determined, shrewd and capable.” She simply ignored everyone who told her, “You can’t!” and turned Nashville into Music City, USA.

The deeper you dive into the story of Lula Naff, the more astonishing it becomes. She was widowed at a young age, with a young daughter. She went to work for a talent agency that was given the task of transforming what had been a church into an entertainment venue called Ryman Auditorium.

Let’s consider this young woman’s plight in 1914, the year the talent agency folded, forcing her to make a decision about her future. Lula Naff is forbidden by law from voting. She can’t attend Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth or Yale. Only 21% of the female population is in the workforce, a vast majority employed as secretaries, teachers and workers doing repetitive manual labor.

Lula decides to seize her own destiny. She makes the boldest possible choice: she leases the Ryman Auditorium herself, and bets on her own talent as a booker and promoter. She is fearless, trying everything: concerts, celebrity appearances, vaudeville-style shows, and opera. She bets that the people of Nashville will support an unconventional cultural institution dedicated to bringing them the best, most interesting talent in the world.

Lula Naff’s heroic quest pays off. In 1920 – the year women finally get the vote -- the Board of Directors of the Ryman recognizes her mastery and makes her their Manager.

For the next 23 years, Lula turns the Ryman into the premiere venue for cultural enrichment in the South. Enrico Caruso appears here, as well as Harry Houdini, Bob Hope, and W.C. Fields. Lula books Broadway shows (Katherine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story”), boxing matches, livestock auctions, political debates and the Ziegfeld Follies.

Lula’s savviest move is booking the Grand Ole Opry to fill every Saturday night starting in 1943. Suddenly the Ryman Auditorium becomes “The Mother Church of Country Music,” broadcasting the best in country music into millions of homes across America. Lula doesn’t retire until 1955, and in all those years, she never fails to turn a profit for the Ryman.

The theme of this year’s National Women’s History Month is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” BRC honors the great Lula Naff. She was a daring woman of ferocious determination, uncanny skill and unstoppable enthusiasm. Lula made history, and we were proud to honor her with her own hit show.