Bluegrass Underground in Tennessee

Bluegrass Underground: Music in the Belly of a Cave

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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.

Bluegrass Underground 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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.
Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.)

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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?

Bluegrass Underground in Tennessee

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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.
Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

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.

Bluegrass Underground in Tennessee

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.

Bluegrass Underground in Tennessee

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?

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.
Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.
Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.

Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.
Bluegrass Underground, deep in the belly of a Tennessee cave, is one of the most surreal concerts you'll ever experience.
COMMENTS
  • April 1, 2015

    Officially adding this to my bucket list – it looks (and sounds) amazing! What a cool experience. Jealous that you also saw Jerry Douglas perform – he rocks.

  • April 2, 2015

    AMOS<3<3<3
    So jealous. Cindy just told me about this and I need to do it asap!

  • April 7, 2015
    Briel K.

    This venue sounds amazing! I just love Amos Lee’s voice so much! I’ve seen him live several times and it is always great. Thanks for sharing a snippet!

  • April 12, 2015

    This is almost like a dream. The sound quality must have been perfect in that environment. I feel envious!

  • April 13, 2015
    Schuyler

    I heard about this place a couple years ago and would love to go! What a cooooool space to listen to music. Maybe next year. And the Quebe Sisters are fantastic!

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