Bluegrass Underground

Featured Article, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on September 18, 2013
Michael Weintrob/Bluegrass Underground Grammy winner Alison Brown performs with husband Garry West and the Alison Brown Quartet at Cumberland Caverns near McMinnville, Tennessee.

Alison Brown plucks her banjo, and the notes reverberate throughout perhaps the most acoustically pure natural concert venue on earth—a cave 333 feet below the ground near McMinnville, Tennessee.

Standing on a dirt-packed stage in a subterranean amphitheater known as the Volcano Room in Cumberland Caverns, her Alison Brown Quartet performs for 600 music lovers sitting on folding chairs, benches and the cave’s rocky ledges at “Bluegrass Underground,” a PBS-TV series that also is nationally broadcast on Saturday nights via the Legend 650 WSM Radio.

“I expected the sound to be much more dark, and I expected the walls of the cave and all the stone to swallow up the sound,” says Brown, 51, a Grammy-winning musician based in Nashville. “I was surprised by the kind of bright, shimmery high end on the music. I thought it was really beautiful.”

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In 2008, when advertising executive Todd Mayo spied the cavernous room while visiting Tennessee’s largest show cave, inspiration struck.

“I had been wanting to do a music show somewhere but didn’t know where. Literally, when I walked into the Volcano Room and saw the whole thing, it hit me like a lightning bolt. This is it!” recalls Mayo, 41, the show’s executive producer.

Turns out that the Volcano Room, formed by underwater rivers flowing across limestone for some 3½ million years, offered not only a compelling natural visual backdrop, but an acoustically pure performance venue.

“Sound engineers say this is as good a sound as any recording studio and better than any live music place like Carnegie Hall or the Ryman Auditorium,” Mayo says.

Filming a TV show in a cave is inherently challenging. Last March, more than 50 crewmembers descended below the earth’s surface toting eight cameras and 1,000 feet of cable weighing 26,000 pounds. A dozen bands played during three days of filming to produce 12 shows for the third season of “Bluegrass Underground.” Enjoying the unique concert experience were hundreds of music lovers dressed in layers of clothing for the cave’s 56-degree climate.

“It’s amazing from the point when you walk in the cave from outside and then take the tour all the way through the cavern to the bottom,” says Ame Guy, 31, a fan from Charlotte, North Carolina. “We were lucky enough to have a seat on the ledge, so we’re sitting up and have an aerial view and it’s been great.”

Launched as a radio show in 2008, “Bluegrass Underground” morphed into a TV series in 2011. Bluegrass veterans who’ve ventured underground include Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Dale Ann Bradley and the Del McCoury Band.

“It was a great experience,” says McCoury, 74, whose band has been the International Bluegrass Association’s Entertainer of the Year nine times. “It sounded great in there. You got all these jagged edges in the ceiling and the walls so the sound can’t bounce around in there. It goes into all these nooks and crannies and stops.”

Cumberland Caverns was discovered in 1810 by surveyor Aaron Higgenbotham but didn’t open to tourists until 1956 when cave explorer and developer Roy Davis installed lighting.

“Davis held Christmas parties in the Volcano Room from 1960 to 2010 for cavers who volunteered as guides and did a lot of the work in the cave,” says Teddy B. Jones, 44, general manager of Cumberland Caverns. “Some of the first music in there was performed by local high school choirs entertaining the crowds with Christmas carols.”

Through the years, the Volcano Room has been used for weddings, birthday parties and corporate gatherings. In 1983, it became the setting for the sci-fi movie “What Waits Below.” Today, “Bluegrass Underground” shares the cave’s remarkable acoustical properties with music listeners across America.

“This is kind of like a double whammy for your soul,” Mayo says, “taking music that moves you and a place that moves you to provide a transcendental experience.”