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Tomato Tuesdays: Lula C. Naff

“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad,” Hill said. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

– Keith Hill

If we choose to take Keith Hill at his words, it seems to me that he has not done sufficient research to understand just how vital a role women have played in laying the foundation for country music. We don’t just succeed as artists; we succeed as agents, publicists, producers, and game changers on and off the stage.  As a woman behind the scenes in the industry, a woman who also founded and runs a publication started entirely by women speaking to all areas of country music, I find Hill’s comments laughable and without basis. Keith Hill is wrong, but I know we must do more than laugh at him. We must educate him.

The country music industry has been a fascinating place for women to succeed and for women to be kept quiet. A genre founded by the outcasts of our society on the back porches of Appalachian shanties, country music has always been a home for those marked ‘other’. Some of the earliest successes in country music were a result of women’s achievements in the industry. Mama Maybelle and the Carter Family were one of the first country bands to be recorded, Jenny Lou Carson wrote countless hit songs for her male counterparts, Dolly Parton wrote a chart topping song crossing three genres, Jeannie Seely paved the way for women to have an equal role in the Opry, and Lula Clay Naff “single-handedly earned Nashville its Music City status”. Poor Mr. Hill seems to have no idea he’s missing out on half the genre’s history. We’re here to change that for him, and for anyone else who has been mislead about just who built this industry from the ground up — because men certainly didn’t do it by themselves.

Welcome, all, to Tomato Tuesdays: A Celebration of Women in Country Music.

Operating under the initialized L.C. Naff for the majority of her career in order to escape criticism such as Hill’s by her own 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 Cafe Lula outside the Ryman, but few know her story. Widely celebrated in theatrical circles, the fact that Naff is not well known in country music is not an indication of her limited success, but one of our failure as an industry to recognize talented and influential individuals on the basis of their sex. Women have long been allowed to do the work; they just aren’t allowed to be celebrated for it. 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, Tennessee, 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 to be 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 occurred 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 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 jokingly 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 venue 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 when 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 she 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.

Edited by Laurie Lowrance

Sources

“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/

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