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Underground Bluegrass: The Concert Hall in a Cave

The most unique concert hall in the Southeast—if not the world—rests some 300 feet below the Cumberland Plateau and just outside McMinnville, Tenn. Carved by millions of years of underground river flow, the Volcano Room, one of the caves that make up the labyrinth of Cumberland Caverns, has become home to the monthly concert series known as Bluegrass Underground.

Stage in a Cave
Stage in a Cave

In the 50-odd years that Cumberland Caverns has been open to the public, thousands of visitors have passed through the Volcano Room, but it was a recent visit by music fan Todd Mayo that led to the series genesis. “My wife and I were like so many other visitors going down to the caverns,” says Mayo. “We went through the Volcano Room and we were awed by its majesty. It’s spectacular. Being a music fan, I asked the tour guide if they ever had live music down there. They had not. We finished the tour and I wouldn’t shut up about it. I’d had ideas about shows before, but at that moment it crystallized.”

Mayo gained the support of legendary WSM Radio—the home of the Grand Ole Opry—and enlisted the help of Grammy-winning sound engineer Phil Harris. It soon became obvious to all involved that they were on to something incredible. Says Harris, “The natural acoustics in the Volcano Room rival the finest studios in Nashville. Taken with the cave’s natural features and 350 million years of evolution, there isn’t another performance space like it anywhere on the planet.”

Both musicians and audiences alike have been taken with the opportunity to participate in a subterranean concert. Bluegrass phenoms The Infamous Stringdusters played the series’ third show in November, and bass player Travis Book noted that it was unlike anything the band had ever done before. “Playing in the cave was completely surreal,” he says. “Being underground brought about a lack of distraction, and the sense that what we were doing at that moment was so completely unique—unlike anything else that was going on in the world at the time—made it truly special.”

Mayo has heard audience members echo these sentiments. “We’re really pleased with the audience response,” he says. “It’s amazing to see the looks on their faces. It’s a musical adventure because most of the people that come to the Volcano Room have never done anything like this before. I’ve been told more than once that it is almost a spiritual experience. That tells me we’re off to a good start.”

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