The world famous Ryman Auditorium had been closed for 20 years prior to Pam Matthews joining the team. Now as the Executive Director of International Entertainment Buyers Association, Matthews recalled how the once grand theater had been shuttered with holes in its roof from 1974-1994 before renovations brought it back to life and she went to work for the former home of the Grand Ole Opry.
“It had been open for a couple of years. They mostly did musicals,” Matthews told Amplify. “When I came, they were doing about 12 concerts a year. When I left, utilization was about 220 events a year.”
During her tenure as the General Manager of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the just over 2,000-seat venue made dramatic turns into the world-renowned space it is today. Shortly after she began in 2000, the Ryman was designated a National Historic Landmark and accolades began to pour in for the revitalized theater.
“A lot of the credit goes to Ali Harnell with AEG. Ali has a whole lot to do with Nashville being the market that it is today,” Matthews said. “We used to just book all the shows we could. We had similar backgrounds and we were ready to go.”
Matthews explained that the first turning point came in 2003, when she and Harnell took a risk and booked a relatively unknown British band.
“We booked Coldplay in the fall before the Grammy nominations came out. We were big believers in the band,” Matthews said. “We paid them more than we paid anyone else up until that point. Then they won all the Grammys and they had this huge night then 10 days later they came and played the Ryman.”
Matthews added “For a really long time, the Ryman was a tastemaker. If Ali and I believed in that band, you knew you should go and see them.”
As someone who began her career in music at the age of 15, Matthews was well poised to bring a venue like the Ryman back to life. She was a runner for Bob Kelly at Mid South Concerts in Memphis as a teenager, acted as the tour accountant for KISS, Judas Priest, and Ozzy Osbourne, helped build the Starwood Amphitheater in Nashville with Pace Concerts, and served as the Vice President and Treasurer for three of the Judds’ corporations.
Her depth of experience in the industry also made her an ideal candidate for her current position as the Executive Director of IEBA.
“I think I am in a unique position to understand most of the point of views in the music industry,” said Matthews. “While IEBA is the trade organization for talent buyers, 25% of our members are agents because in order to get business done you have to have the agent, the managers, and the talent buyer all on the same page. I can understand it from all points of view. I can understand it from the promoter side, the talent buyer side, the building side, the artist side and these are just my people. This is all I’ve ever done.”
Amplify caught up with Matthews to find out five shows that have had an impact on her life and career.
US Festival at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California
May 28-30, 1983
The US Festivals were awesome for a hundred reasons. Here are a few specific to 1983: 375,000 people in a dusty field on Day two, truly massive video screens, Barry Fey, “New Wave,” porta potties rolling down a hill at 2am, Bianca Jagger & David Bowie hanging out backstage, grown men in satin event jackets, and trying to be cool with David Lee Roth in the catering tent. Tickets were $20 per day, there were veejays, (Steve Wozniak) losing $10M AGAIN but doing it anyway, plus the U.S. debut of INXS, Stray Cats stealing the show, and The Clash being babies over money. The Pretenders, Stevie Nicks, and blond Bowie were there. U2 opened for Quarterflash, Motley Crue played before Shout at the Devil, Ozzy, Judas Priest performing, and being absolutely certain you are witnessing history.
Judas Priest at Madison Square Garden in New York
June 18, 1984
I had just finished the Bark at the Moon tour with Ozzy, so I was hip to the early 80’s arena metal scene. In those days, church folk would protest on the plaza before the show – singing hymns, carrying signs, handing out pamphlets. I had seen plenty of rowdy audiences on an arena floor, but this was mayhem. There are conflicting accounts about how the craziness got started and I have my own opinion. Fans ripped seats open and tossed the foam cushions at the stage. The photogs were half-buried in the pit. The stage was 2-3 cushions deep by the end of the show, and Glenn and K.K. (of Judas Priest) were bouncing on them because there was nowhere else to stand on stage. The crowd set cardboard pizza rounds on fire and hurdled them like frisbees. Priest played like rock gods through the fray, turning in a massive set that included Defenders of the Faith classics “Freewheel Burning” and “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll.” Damn, they were such a great band. Jon Scher promoted the show. Great White was the opening act, and they were pretty freaked out. I rode with them and Alan Niven on their bus to the after-party at the Limelight. That place was cool AF in the day. The guys with Anthrax were at the party and wouldn’t shut up about the damage to the Garden. I learned a lot about the live music business that night. We went to Binghamton the next day and everything went back to normal. BUT … Judas Priest remains banned from MSG to this day.
June 28, 1997
This was three artists in four venues in one day. I was part of Wynonna’s management team in 1997. Wy had become friends with the guys in U2 in the late 80’s. When we got the offer to play Taste of Chicago, we already had plans to see U2 that night so Taste was an easy “YES!” When we found out Prince would be at United Center, we had a real dilemma. Could we catch both shows? If not, that’s a tough call – U2 vs. Prince. Wy’s set was around 3pm. Prince’s after-party was around 3am. With some tour manager magic and a little help from our friends at Jam, we hit all four gigs.
In 1997, Wy was five years into her solo career and the mother of two children under the age of three. Wynonna is a stone-cold singer. By that point, she had sold 20M albums and could deliver a tight 60 minutes and make it look so easy. In stark contrast to Wy’s chill set at the chill food festival, U2’s PopMart Tour was a gaudy, purposely-massive production with an enormous video wall, a 100’ golden arch, and that infamous giant mirrored lemon the band rode to the satellite stage. It was a satirical spectacle and also a moment of real connection with the band and the other 40,000 humans present. It was a master class in stadium rock, and I loved all of it.
Prince was in his NPG era, pre-Larry Graham and before he became a Jehovah’s Witness. In 1997, his set list included “Sexy M.F.” and a nasty rendition of “Do Me, Baby.” This was his first full scale tour since 1993 and he was in his prime. We missed most of the Chicago show but caught the Nashville stop on August 22, 1997 (which also included one of his classic 3am after-parties). Prince was magic, an archetype, a genius.
Nashville Symphony with Dave Brubeck Quartet at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville
Oct. 14, 2004
I really love jazz music. Classic, cool jazz especially. I’m fan and a student. I’ve been collecting jazz albums, cassettes, CDs, and books for 35 years. Miles, Coltrane, Dex, Milt Jackson, Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey. I love the piano players most of all – Bill Evans, T. Monk, Chet, Oscar Peterson, and Dave Brubeck.
In 2004, Dave Brubeck was 84 years old. I had never seen him perform live in person. By the time I discovered jazz in early 80s, many of those legends had passed away or were living in Europe and rarely touring the U.S. I didn’t book Brubeck’s gig at the Ryman; it was rental event sponsored by the Nashville Symphony. I brought my well-worn Time Out album –the one with that great abstract by Fujita – to work with every intention of asking the legend to autograph it. Brubeck arrived in the building hours before the gig. I made feeble excuses to go backstage but hugged the corners like a church mouse.
Brubeck’s performance was remarkable. A master in the twilight of his life, he savored every moment with his audience, his band, and his piano. “Take Five” sounded as fresh as ever. He was charming, coy, and oh-so cool. He ended his show with a witty little lullaby saying, “That’s all from me tonight.” I never got that autograph because I was just too shy to approach a musical hero. But I got a beautiful memory of a splendid night with one of the defining artists of an era.
Jason Isbell at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville
Oct. 24, 2014
In a very personal way, this show epitomizes what the live experience can be and the emotional reaction it can produce. One of the unfortunate byproducts of decades in the music industry (including my 33 years in “Music City”) is a blasé attitude toward music. It comes and goes. My husband works in government and does not share my musical fatigue. He purchased our tickets and we attended as patrons.
2014 was the first year of Isbell’s multi-night runs at the Ryman. (I believe his mini-residency was over five nights a year now.) I’d heard all the hype, but we’ve all heard plenty of hype. I knew “Alabama Pines.” It’s a beautifully-crafted song performed by a seasoned pro. His critically-acclaimed Southeastern album was about a year old but I’d somehow avoided really hearing any of it. It was a Saturday and I had a shitty attitude about having to leave the house (so jaded). It would be a stretch to say this Jason Isbell concert changed my life but fair to say it reset my perspective on music. If you’ve seen Isbell, I’m preaching to the choir. If you haven’t, you should. One Jason Isbell show re-ignited my love of great songwriting and inspired performance. I’ve purchased more CDs since that night than I had in the previous ten years, including every album Jason Isbell has ever released.