I discovered Lula Clay Naff during one of those interactive, tourist trap presentations at the Ryman Auditorium. I was taken by her immediately; her determination, business prowess, and creativity all stood out as I learned of how she single-handedly built the country music industry from the ground up. Lula's steadfast determination to see art flourish in Nashville reminded me of my own determination to see art be a part of my everyday and flourish in the communities I know and love. This publication will honor Lula and the art she worked so tirelessly in Nashville to promote. Everything we do is dedicated to her memory, and to preserving and celebrating country music.
Lula's Lasting Legacy
In 1904, Lula C. Naff was a young widow and a secretary for the Johnson City talent agency-which had just relocated its brick and mortar to Nashville. This was the year Lula's legacy with country music began.
As secretary of the Johnson City talent agency, Lula was tasked with booking concerts, speaking engagements, and other entertainment acts into the Ryman Auditorium (previously the Union Gospel Tabernacle). It was during the first ten years of her career in Nashville that Naff developed her talent for finding and booking top of the line acts into the Ryman to make it what it is today- the Mother Church of country Music. By 1914, Johnson City talent agency was defunct, but Lula kept her spirits lifted and began working directly with the Ryman. Lula was far ahead of her time, and took the risk of leasing out the entire venue as an independent agent, booking some of the biggest names in music, theatre, opera, and other forms of entertainment.
Lula continued for six years as an independent agent, until the board of directors for the Ryman hired her directly to manage the venue in 1920. Only one year after women gained the right to vote, Naff was a self made, well respected executive in the entertainment industry.
Everyone who was anyone played the Ryman under the leadership of Lula Naff. Night after night the church's pews were filled to the brim to see names like Harry Houdini, Katharine Hepburn, Ziegfeld Follies, Will Rogers, Ethyl Barrymore, and so many more that made up the creme de la creme of the entertainment world.
Perhaps the most prolific year of Lula's career was 1943- the year she agreed to let the Grand Ole' Opry show make the Ryman stage it's home. Every Saturday night from 1943 until 1974, the Opry filled the Ryman stage and America's airwaves with country music and comedy. Now housed at the Grand Ole' Opry House just outside downtown Nashville, the Opry is a well loved tradition that still thrives today, and occasionally returns home for their special Opry at the Ryman series.
Lula was named Manager Emeritus when she retired in 1955, succeeded by her longtime assistant, Mr. Harry Draper. She passed away in 1960 at the age of eighty-five. Lula's strategic vision, determination, and stone cold work ethic made the Ryman, and country music, what it is today. We owe so much of our culture and our belonging in Nashville to her.