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 helped to build 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 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
Operating under the name L.C. Naff for the majority of her career to escape criticism by male contemporaries, Lula Clay Naff should go down in history as one of the most important executives in the country music industry. Some may have seen her star while perusing the Nashville Walk of Fame or popped into the Cafe Lula outside the Ryman, but few know her story. Known as America’s First Lady of theater management, Naff was determined, shrewd, creative, tough, and single-handedly responsible the creation of the Ryman’s rich legacy as one of the most sought after music venues in the world.
Born in Fall Branch in 1875, Lula C. Naff was the daughter of a country hotel operator and circuit court clerk for Washington County. Naff’s family relocated to Johnson City, Tennessee in 1887 where she graduated from Johnson City High School and married Charles Naff at the age of seventeen. By the time Naff was twenty-five, she was widowed with a small child. Rather than remarry or seek shelter with her parents to raise her daughter, Naff attended business school in Bristol and, three days after her graduation, landed a position as a stenographer with the DeLong Rice Lyceum Bureau back home in Johnson city. Naff’s work with the talent bureau would prove the beginning of a lifelong theatrical career for her.
Naff kept her employment with the Bureau for well over a decade, taking over as secretary and relocating to Nashville in 1903, eleven years after the Ryman Auditorium was built in the heart of Music City. Naff’s first experience at the Ryman was shortly after she moved to town and attended a concert to hear Adelina Patti sing in the auditorium. The performance touched Naff deeply, and in 1914 when DeLong Rice was appointed superintendent of Shiloh National Park, effectively handing his agency to Naff, she immediately leased the Ryman. Two years later, still several years before women even had the right to vote, she began booking talent into the auditorium as an independent agent.
By the time Naff began leasing the Ryman, the film industry was gaining popularity across the United States. Naff herself commented “Who wants to hear Billy Sunday for a dollar when they can see Mary Pickford for a dime?” Still, Naff believed in the power of live performance and quite literally laid her livelihood on the line to venture into her new career as an agent. Her very first act at the Ryman, singer John McCormack, required a $3,000 guarantee to book. Naff mortgaged her home to pay his guarantee, and he paid her back in spades. The tenor’s performance at the Ryman sold out, with scalpers getting $25 per ticket. Naff noted McCormack as her favorite singer from then on. As part of her tenure as an independent agent Naff booked some of the biggest names in music, theatre, and opera and brought some of the first integrated shows to the south. A self-described “unconstructed rebel”, Naff did not care for color or class. She cared only for talent and one’s ability to delight a crowd in her beloved theatre.
Lula Clay Naff remained an independent agent until 1920 when the auditorium was taken over by the Ryman Auditorium Improvement Association, “a group of citizens determined to operate it on a non-profit basis and use all returns to keep up the building.” Naff was appointed manager of the venue and remained in her position until 1955. Night after night, the church’s pews were filled to the brim to see names like Harry Houdini, the Ziegfeld Follies, Will Rogers, Ethyl Barrymore, Marian Anderson, Helen Hayes, and Tallulah Bankhead. Naff went to bat more than once to bring provocative, important productions to the Ryman. One such battle ended in court with Naff winning the rights to the stage play Tobacco Road. John Barton’s infamous appearance in the play in 1939 was followed up by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story in 1941.
In 1943, Naff effectively changed the course of music history in Nashville as she allowed the Opry to join the Ryman family. On June 5, 1943, The Grand Ole Opry, having previously outgrown four other venues, moved from War Memorial Auditorium to Ryman. The show sold out week after week, and the Opry graced the Ryman stage for thirty-one years before acquiring its new home at Opryland. Now housed at the Grand Ole’ Opry House just outside downtown Nashville, the Opry is a well loved tradition that still thrives and occasionally returns home for their special Opry at the Ryman series. Naff saw the Opry invitations and inductions of many notable members including Little Jimmy Dickens and Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters before her retirement in 1955.
Upon her retirement Naff was named Manager Emeritus of the Opry and stayed involved with the goings-on of her child, as the called the venue, as often as she could. Naff commented: “You know, I started here [at the Ryman] in 1904. I came down from East Tennessee after my husband died and took a business course and sort of fell into show business. It is heartbreaking to step out of show business after fifty-one years. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself. There’s not much for a little old lady like me, but I’m not quitting.” Naff was succeeded in the position by her longtime assistant, Mr. Harry Draper. Naff passed away peacefully in her sleep on an early Thursday morning in 1960 at the age of eighty-five. Lula Naff’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.
“Death in Sleep Takes Mrs. Naff” Tennesseean, March 5, 1960. Accessed March 13, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/5315509/lula_naff_obituary/
Eskew, Herman. “Mrs. Lula Naff Rings Down Curtain on Ryman Career” Tennesseean, August 25, 1955. Accessed March 13, 2019 https://www.newspapers.com/clip/5303040/the_tennessean/
“Lula C. Naff”, History of the Ryman Auditorium. Accessed March 13, 2019. https://www.ryman.com/history/lula-c-naff/