“It's sort of Red Rocks meets Ruby Falls.”
Todd Mayo still remembers the day he dreamed up Bluegrass Underground.
It was a decade ago, and he was visiting Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tenn., just a regular tourist on one of the sightseeing visits into the privately owned, underground attraction in McMinnville, Tenn. Upon seeing the Volcano Room, a large open space inside the cavern, he had an idea for a live music show. It was like a bolt of lightning hitting him, he says, and in less than two months, his path forward was set.
› What: March 24, Sweet Lizzy Project with Billy Strings. March 25, Sam Bush Band with Aaron Lee Tasjan.
› Admission: Sweet Lizzy Project, $75-$130; Sam Bush, $75-$130.
› Website: thecaverns.com.
The Volcano Room at Cumberland Caverns will continue to host live shows. The Cumberland Caverns Live schedule features The Secret Sisters on April 14, High Valley on May 12 and The Head and the Heart on June 26 (sold out).
What followed was a subterranean concert series, Bluegrass Underground, and an Emmy-winning PBS series of the same name.
"It was Memorial Day weekend, and I went to Cumberland Caverns. It was my first time ever in a cave, and I just had the idea," recalls Mayo, who worked in marketing at the time and had no experience in concert production. "Six weeks later, I had created the show, I had created the website and I got into the music business. Now it is seen on PBS in 98 percent of the country."
But the setting wasn't ideal, through no one's fault, he says, so he has moved the show to another cave.
"It wasn't broke where it was, but it does come with some realities," he says. "There is the ideal and the reality, and I wanted it to be the ideal."
Those realities centered on the logistics of loading in, setting up and then tearing down all of the lighting, sound, video, seating and vending required to produce the show. It took several days to set up, so Mayo began searching for a cave that fit all of his needs and let him control certain things. He found one that was privately owned in Pelham, Tenn., at the base of Monteagle Mountain. He bought it and named it The Caverns.
Mayo says the cave has a colorful history to it.
"I do believe there has been some 'shine made there and stored there over the years, and some of the good 'ol boys used to ride four-wheelers in and out of here."
Bluegrass Underground will continue at The Caverns, with the first performances this weekend, but the move allows him to offer more shows than just that series.
"I was searching for years in Tennessee. I wanted to keep it close to Nashville, Chattanooga, Birmingham and Atlanta. Those are our core markets, and I wanted something I could own so I could put in permanent infrastructure like lights and sound and power. The cave in Grundy County is ideal.
"It's sort of Red Rocks meets Ruby Falls."
The first show in the new space is Saturday, March 24, with Billy Strings and Sweet Lizzy Project. Mayo says he found Sweet Lizzy Project, an indie rock band from Havana, while working in Cuba.
"They are amazing, and that is part of what I want to do is introduce people to music that's new to them. And it's in a cave. It's primordial."
Aaron Lee Tasjan will open for the Sam Bush Band on Sunday, March 25. Brandi Carlile is there on April 20. That show sold out in two minutes, Mayo says, adding he plans to have about 40 shows in the space.
Seating capacity in the cave is 700 for seated shows and 1,000 for standing-room-only. He adds that parking is also improved, meaning getting in and out is easier than it was before. Access is via a gently sloping path, "and once you get inside, you see a wall with a big old arched door. It's easy to get in and out of."
Mayo says a slew of scientists were brought in to check the cave over to make sure it was safe for humans and wildlife to hold shows there.
"We wanted to make sure we are not disturbing nature."
Having the infrastructure permanently in place has another positive as well, Mayo says.
"It took a week to load in before, which meant we had to do shows on the weekend," he says.
"Now, if an artist is coming through Atlanta or Nashville during the week, we can do it. Now, we let the tail of the artists wag the dog."
To help make things even more special, Mayo says he has enlisted local vendors to provide food and has even created signature branding for the wrappers of the potato chips and Fiery Gizzard Caverns Club Sandwich and Pelham Ham Sandwich that will be served.
"We have our own branded craft beer as well," he says.
Mayo also has created packages that include tickets, accommodations, travel, hats, meals and digital downloads of shows. They are available through the website.
Underground venues may not be typical, but Dr. Bradley A. Hanson, director of folklife with the Tennessee Arts Commission, says music, especially bluegrass and country, have long been a part of the state's history.
"Bluegrass and country music are deeply rooted in Tennessee," he says. "Our state has always been known as one of the best places to experience these forms of music. Tennesseans value this music culture as part of our history and part of our future."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.
Bluegrass Underground 2018 PBS tapings
› March 24: Billy Strings and Sweet Lizzy Project
› March 25: Sam Bush Band and Aaron Lee Tasjan
› April 20: Brandi Carlile
› April 21: Kathy Mattea and the Tim O’Brien Bluegrass Band
› April 22: Lettuce and the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou
› May 19: Flatt Lonesome and Turnpike Troubadours
› May 20: Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper and Mary Gauthier
The Caverns’ 2018 Schedule
› April 28: Del McCoury Band with Sierra Hull
› June 8: Pianopalooza with Davina & The Vagabonds and Jason D. Williams
› June 16: Keller Williams
› July 21: Scott Miller
› Aug. 11: Mountain Heart
› Sept. 8: John Anderson, Bobby Bare and James Otto
› Oct. 31: Here Come The Mummies
› Nov. 3: Dailey & Vincent