Bluegrass Underground: Tennessee's most unique music venue

Dec 6, 2016

The group Flatt Lonesome performing at Bluegrass Underground in the fall of 2016.
Credit WMOT

CUMBERLAND CAVERNS, Tenn. (WMOT)  -- Tennessee is home to some famous music venues, from the blues capital of Beale Street in the heart of Memphis, to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music.

Now, a relatively new music venue up on the Cumberland Plateau is gaining some notoriety. At the very least, Bluegrass Underground takes the prize as one of the world’s most unusual performance spaces.

On most Saturdays, between 500 and 600 music fans from all over the world trek about a half-mile into the Cumberland Caverns to enjoy American roots music more than 300 feet below ground.

The audience files into the Cumberland Caverns for a Bluegrass Underground performance in the fall of 2016.
Credit WMOT

Bluegrass Underground was launched in 2008. The show features artists playing the styles of music developed in the hills above beginning in the 18th century. On a recent Saturday the two-hour program included music by the modern folk band Way Down Wanderers, and the Bluegrass band Flatt Lonesome.

The performances are staged in a large cavern referred to as The Volcano Room. Surprisingly, the room’s acoustics are nearly perfect. It’s a fact that wasn’t lost on the Tennessee music promoter who originated Bluegrass Underground, Todd Mayo.

“Inside the cave we took the tour and you get down into the Volcano Room and there is this giant chandelier,” Mayo remembered.  “And I looked up and I looked around and I said to the tour guide, ‘Do you all have live music around here?’ and she said, ‘No, but that would be a good idea.’  And it just sort of all came to me.”

More than 180,000 guests later, Bluegrass Underground is gathering an international following. That recognition is due in no small measure to the worldwide distribution of performances by PBS.

“We have had people from Ireland and Japan, and they literally, they said they came to America, the impetus was to come to this cave and see this show,” Mayo said.

As the audience filed out of the cave, Bluegrass fan Gwynn Lanaus confessed he did feel a bit queasy being so far underground, but also said the music seemed to fit the setting.

“The Bluegrass we saw today, it kind of blended.  It might not be a venue for all kinds of music, but it was certainly appropriate for the day,” he said.

The band Way Down Wanderer perform on the Bluegrass Underground stage during the fall of 2016.
Credit WMOT

And the cave setting also matched the nature-themed songs often performed by the Way Down Wanderers.  Lead singer Austin Thompson was impressed as well with the cave’s natural acoustics.

“I thought it was really great,” Thompson said.  “I mean, being on both sides of the spectrum, being on stage and as a listener in the audience, it was a really full ... a really full sound.”

Todd Mayo says he hopes in the near future to give music fans who attend the show an even fuller experience.  He wants to develop a weekend long Tennessee adventure that would include visiting some of the state’s many scenic parks and forests.

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