On September 25, Harry Styles headlined Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and the choice of venue — an intimate theater originally built as a house of worship, one that’s still got the stained glass windows and pews to prove it — was a huge deal. A hallowed hall beyond its religious foundation, the Ryman, known to many as the Mother Church, was where scores of country, rock, and bluegrass legends sang and strummed through career-making (or notorious, in the cases of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley) performances on the come-up.
To play the Ryman is a privilege and a dream for any musician, but a guitar-wielding, rock-minded one, especially — and the significance of the milestone wasn’t lost on Styles. With a Presleyan pompadour and a dark floral suit the Man in Black would’ve approved of, he greeted the crowd two songs into his set and let everyone know that this stop on the jaunt was a very intentional one: “When we booked this tour, this was kind of the reason, this room.”
Considering that Cash got banned from the place for kicking out the footlights in 1969 and Presley was told he better stick to driving a truck after his night there in 1954, Styles had a stronger first showing than the idols that came before him in 2017. As he did in San Francisco and Los Angeles the week prior, Styles played through his debut album, worked in One Direction single “What Makes You Beautiful,” and surprised the crowd with a couple of covers, including one inspired by the city’s trademark twang. A giant Fleetwood Mac fan, Styles has publicly demonstrated his adoration for their music, between his heart-stopping “Landslide” duet with Stevie Nicks at his L.A. album release gig and his recent rendering of “The Chain” for his BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge cut. The Fleetwood Mac standard made for an incredible encore in Nashville, but it was his mid-concert take on “Girl Crush,” the game-changing smash of country quartet Little Big Town, that peeled back the layers of celebrity and expectation to reveal a musician born with the kind of stage presence and ability that can’t be taught.
Country isn’t all truck talk and star-spangled sentiments, and the genre requires its singers to bust their lungs on intricate harmonies and high-belts in order to live up to those who put Nashville on the map in the first place. With that “Girl Crush” cover, Styles didn’t just sing through a song he liked from the city he happened to be rolling through: He proved that all he needs is a microphone to show up and shine, and that the stuff of lasting success lies in an ability to shape-shift and try new things — in this case, a pop country hit an average Directioner never would’ve expected from him, and in country’s spiritual home, at that.
Beyond the brief foray into southern comfort, the goofiness that comes as naturally to him as the harder-rocking material on Harry Styles brought about the evening's highlights. (After “Kiwi,” he, once again, threw to his surroundings: “I’m very aware that I screamed ‘I’M HAVING YOUR BABY’ inside a church — sorry!”) As he did during his Saturday Night Live performance in April, Styles clutched at his guitar, but didn’t wholly command it; his is the eager stature of a confident musician who knows where he excels (at the mic) and where he needs to improve (at the mic with a Gibson in hand). "From The Dining Table" was nothing short of enthralling, and it's no wonder the tune's his favorite. He’s still finding his footing as a frontman and a standalone force, but the tracks that offered him an opportunity to stretch and embrace this solitary rock star status — "Only Angel,” “Carolina,” and closer “Sign of the Times,” in particular — doubled as his strongest moments, “Girl Crush” and the adrenaline-pumping party of “What Makes You Beautiful” aside.
This is less of a criticism than an acknowledgment that this tour serves as the official start of a new chapter for Styles, and that even the best see every passing show as a chance to improve. From here, he’ll venture west through the United States and Canada before making his way to four more continents; he’ll undoubtedly try new covers on for size, switch up the One Direction songs to keep the fans screaming, and continue to grow more comfortable at the center of a stage he can dominate on his own before making his way home to England and mounting another world tour in 2018.
The true beginning happened not in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but Nashville, where the young man — the teen idol, all grown up — stepped onto the same stage from which so many icons leapt soared to their initial ascents. If you’re going to take over the world with a guitar in hand, doing so with the blessing of the Mother Church is a pretty great place to start. And if it marked the sign of greater things to come for Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, it'll certainly do the same for Harry Styles.