I grew up in Tullahoma, just a half an hour or so outside of McMinnville where Cumberland Caverns is located. As a kid, I remember occasionally heading over to the cave for field trips, summer outings or the like. But now as an adult getting the chance to listen to some of the world’s best bluegrass from 333 feet below the earth? Don’t mind if I do.
Note: The majority of bluegrass shows have since moved to the Caverns in Pelham, though Cumberland Caverns is still very much a great place to visit when you’re in Tennessee!
I’ve wanted to go to Bluegrass Underground since it first debuted five years ago, but to tell you the truth, I never remember about it until it’s too late. Because it’s such a popular event in an intimate space, PBS doesn’t have to do any marketing for the concerts, and they sell out of tickets for the three-day opening weekend each year almost immediately.
McMinnville is about an hour and a half south of Nashville, the last third of which is on pretty slow country roads. On the drive out there once you get off of I-24, you’ll think you’re lost multiple times as you pass through fields of greenery and farmland, old barns that look like they could be the set for The Walking Dead and discreet, hand-painted signs that indicate you’re still going the right way after all.
Give yourself ample time, though, because you’ll probably want to pull over at times, take pictures and frolic. After all, that’s what Saturdays are for, right? (Tell me that’s not just me.)
The show was slated to start at 2pm, and we arrived in a dirt parking lot around 12:45 where people were crowded around the boots of their cars doing what us Southerners do best: tailgating. (Love it.) There’s no alcohol sold or allowed in the cave, so it made sense. What’s bluegrass without a little whiskey buzz?
After parking at the lot at the bottom of the hill, SVV and I hiked up the steep incline to the entrance of Cumberland Caverns, though there are also golf carts that transport guests if need be. We got there pretty early, and on top of that there was a delay because Lee Ann Womack’s tour bus broke down en route (stars—they’re just like us!) so we had about a half an hour to kill before they started letting people into the cave.
Wear sturdy shoes because you do a bit of walking to get down into the heart of the cave where the concert takes place. It’s a pretty cool trek, because not only do you get to see some world-class music, you get a tour of the caverns while you’re at it.
The cave itself stays a cool 56 degrees year round. It felt perfect this weekend when the outside temps were barely above 40. Still, I’d recommend a light to medium jacket no matter the month of year you visit.
We had grabbed snacks in the gift shop not realizing there was a concession stand, merch, the whole nine yards down in the cave. There are also bathrooms, so you don’t have to hold your bladder for the entire three hours or so of the show. There’s general seating in the Volcano Room, but you’re also free to sit on the rocks or bring folding chairs. It’s all very casual, very Southern.
Once you enter, you’ll descend into the Volcano Room. It’s dusty, the terrain is uneven, and you’d be best to wear casual clothes that you don’t mind getting a bit dirty, as well as sturdy shoes without heels.
Once you’re in the belly of the cave, you’ll take a seat—lucky for us, we were there as guests of one of the sponsors, so we had a front row reserved seat—and then get a briefing from the producers.
Each artist performs for 45 minutes or so, and it’s very informal. We decided to go for the Saturday show of the three-day taping because it featured Amos Lee and Lee Ann Womack, two artists who anyone should see live but especially in a cave.
Now, I see a lot of music—in fact, in the week before, I saw the cast of Nashville, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church and Kree Harrison all in a seven-day period at various shows—but this experience trumped them all. I was in awe of the whole set-up, the acoustics in the cave and how seamless everything ran, even when they had to push back the performances for the broken down bus.
For those who want to see a lot of music over a weekend, there are multi-day packages that include hotel stays. We wound up only staying for the first two acts and a couple songs of the Earls of Leicester because by that point we’d be away from Ella for nearly six hours and still had an hour drive home.
There are performances monthly from now through October, and the show we saw airs this fall on PBS. I really hope I get the chance to go to Bluegrass Underground again next year, and I’m hoping if I put this out there in the Universe then Alison Krauss will be on the lineup once more. Hey, a girl can dream, right?