If you were a tourist in Nashville this morning, and if you wandered into the Ryman Auditorium—the “Mother Church”—for a tour, there would be no evidence of the self-indulgent campy Bacchanalian dance party that occurred on stage last Friday.
The experience is forever hidden in the building’s walls, a sweet secret known by only those who were there.
And thank god I was.
I hadn’t planned on going. I had seen Rufus Wainwright at the Ryman in 2007, and my car had gotten towed. Oh, but it was worth it…
I really, really wanted to see Rufus—the gay Canadian-American singer-songwriter with fabulous legs and a deep, operatic voice—this tour, but I had expected tickets to be about $100 like they were in 2007. That wouldn’t have been do-able this month, when pretty much every unexpected expense has crept up on us. But my husband forwarded me a link days before the concert, and it turned out I could get a great seat for $30. “You should go,” he said, knowing that I have been insanely stressed at work—sometimes working until 8pm, 10pm, 2am, and coming home with headaches. I desperately needed to play. “Go,” he said.
I did. I parked. I walked. I bought a couple Fat Tires. I people-watched. There were two openers, so by the time Rufus played his set, it was late. He had not done any cabaret this time, and it surprised me how tame the concert had been—save his declaration that he is probably the only man to wear a flower in his hair on the stage of the Ryman. THEN—
We stomped and howled for an encore. A nearly-naked grown-man with wings on his back—not Rufus—came to the mic and told the crowd: “Rufus Apollo can only be summoned if a Bacchanalian dance party ensues.” It took minutes, but we had all become so rowdy that Rufus Apollo did indeed appear in a blond wig and a tiny little toga, singing “Old Whore’s Diet,” and telling us to come onstage and DANCE.
Huh? What?! Did he say—
YES!!! I had an aisle seat, and I was by myself, so I darted toward the front. The security guard stopped letting people on right before I got there, but I was still up front, watching sweat drizzle down Rufus Apollo’s thighs, watching audience members rub against his back, watching a zombie shove a six-foot foam hoagie at a kneeling Rufus’s mouth. We all danced like mad and looked at each other, stunned, as if to say, “Can you believe we’re HERE? Seeing THIS? Does life get any better?!”
When Rufus got zapped by fake lightning, down he went, and the room went dark and quiet. Someone lit candles. There was THE Teddy Thompson, sitting cross-legged behind Rufus, strumming the opening chords of “Gay Messiah,” as Rufus sang, lying down in the dark, “He will then be reborn / From 1970s porn….” He was resurrected, magically. Off came his wig. “Move back,” said the security guard, and I knew—
Rufus came down the steps into the audience, and he was right in front of me! I wanted to touch him. I was shocked, thrilled, gape-mouthed…then he touched my arm. Rufus Wainwright touched my arm.
When the lights came on, and the stage was clear, and the Gay Messiah and his crew were out of sight, and my beer cup was empty, there was the regular ole Ryman stage, with the missing circle that was cut out and planted in the floor of the new Grand Ole Opry stage as a way to transfer everything sacred that the Ryman stood for. Gospel hymns sung by the Carters, prayers uttered, God-country-apple pie.
All that has never been my speed, even though I respect the tradition, the roots of the country music that allowed my musician father to make a good living. Now, the Ryman is a beautiful building, and I personally like to think of it as a symbol of music—all music—rather than God-faith-etc., and it makes me feel good to drive past it every morning. I’m glad that Emmylou Harris saved the place from disrepair. The acoustics are jaw-dropping, and there’s no place like it on earth.
But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that something about it feels staunch, exclusive, discriminatory. A white-Protestant-straight man might not think so, but country music and all its symbols sprung out of the American South, and the American South is still a rough place for anyone who’s not a white-Protestant-straight man. (Plus a white-Protestant-straight man built it.)
So Rufus Wainwright’s roll in the Ryman hay was charged with meaning: it was as if he reclaimed something there for everyone. Be straight. Be gay. Be a man, woman, both, neither. Be shy. Be bold. Dress in everything or dress in nothing. Be yourself.
And then it all went away, with the candles and Teddy Thompson and the fake hoagie, as if it never happened. He was packed into the century of memories—with Robert Altman’s Nashville crew, Ryan Adams’s infamous outburst, Stringbean’s tiny jeans, and incalculable performances of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” It was all gone. And I loved that I was there to witness something that is now hidden, but can’t be undone, can’t be taken out of the ether and fabric and wood, can’t be rewound. It’s there, whether everyone is ready or not—a new dawning, a welcoming of singers, players, patrons, who push the boundaries and break the molds.
Rufus gushed about his new husband, his daughter, his mother, his sisters. He’s a pretty normal guy. Who happens to wear pantyhose.
And, dude— Susan Elliott’s poem “Advice for the Modern Woman”—is a breath of fresh air with the tiniest bite of chill, showing how we women tend to cloak ourselves in props, trying on new selves, and how we can track our lives with them.
Photo by Cliff on flickr