One of the Best Acoustical Ideas Tennessee Has Ever Had: Bluegrass Underground

Concert series celebrates fourth anniversary with The Steeldrivers

Music fans take in the sounds of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver 333 feet below ground. Photo by Mark Humphrey

The Steeldrivers will perform in Cumberland Caverns on Saturday, Aug. 11. Text 'bluegrass' to 86568 for a chance to win tickets.

Three-hundred thirty-three feet below McMinnville’s surface in a large Cumberland Cavern titled The Volcano Room, there is a platform of bedrock dreamed several years ago to be a massive stage rising just feet above a ground. It is spread plentifully enough for many visitors to sit comfortably, watching and listening to studio quality music; the performances on this bedrock stage reflect seriously sound studio quality, as The Volcano Room only resonates in two separate frequencies, mimicking any enclosed recording booth.

The dreamers envisioning this years ago were completely aware of this too, and the music of choice to resonate throughout the cavern for hundreds of people coming from all over the South to McMinnville is nothing better than the finest Americana, roots, buegrass and country music anyone could hope for. Musicians in these genres who get an opportunity to play the rocky room would be foolish to turn it down unless there’s a death in the family or something else major such as playing at the White House, for example. High-end pickers such as Vince Gill, Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, to more recently, The Civil Wars, as well as Dr. Ralph Stanley—who is scheduled to make another appearance at the end of October—know so and perform on the earth-made stage for packed crowds every chance they get.

A chandelier hangs high above the Volcano Room theater. Photo courtesy Megstermeter

The next show coming up for Cumberland Cavern’s The Volcano Room is Nashville quintet The Steeldrivers on Aug. 11 at 1 p.m. And perfect timing too, as Bluegrass Underground is winding down its first season broadcasting the concerts on PBS as well as the performance itself standing as a momentous celebration. Aug. 11 is the 4th anniversary of the Bluegrass Underground Series, and what better way to get down than having the band that kicked off the whole thing that particular day four years back to play the cavern once again. It’s going to be an exciting time for the performers and audiences, organizers and broadcasters alike, as these years past have been a good time of growth for them all.

Just as The Volcano Room was revamped, bringing it out of darkness in 2008 with a brilliantly placed and a perfectly mood-setting lighting system designed by one of the field’s top professionals, Allen Branton, the Steeldrivers have seen their fair share of growth since opening the doors to The Volcano Room. They’ve changed their lineup (adding a few virtuosic studio musicians, but not before losing a couple of original members wanting to further solo-careers with new sounds of their own), won some awards and were even nominated for Grammy awards in 2009 and 2010 for Best Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Bluegrass Album for songs “Blue Side of the Mountain,” from their self-titled first album released out of Rounder Records in 2008, and “Where the Rainbow Never Dies,” from their 2010 Rounder Records release, Reckless.

David Jacobs-Strain performs at Bluegrass Underground in 2010. Photo by Chris Donahue

Just as the audience has obviously aged four years and grown in attendance since word of The Volcano Room has spread through the South via mouth and praise-filled media coverage, the notion to have the rest of the country in on what’s happening in-cave at concert time struck producers Todd Mayo and Todd Jarrell of Todd Squared, LLC, to bring the Public Broadcast Company in to film last year, broadcasting as far east as the ocean will let them; to as far north as New York and Connecticut; as far west as Texas and on to California and as far south as the Virgin Islands. Everyone involved is gearing up for the second season of Bluegrass Underground sessions beginning Sept. 22 with Town Mountain, a bluegrass quintet from Asheville, NC, with special guests Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen coming down from Alexandria, VA, to play with them. Attention to the series is obvious as the Bluegrass Underground series received two of the most coveted international awards for production excellence in the TV and film industries: The CINE Golden Eagle and The Telly Silver Award, the former from the CINE competitions comprised of around 400 judges reviewing productions from all around the world and the latter from the Telly Awards that make a point to honor individual series achievements in progressing excellence through the world of art and cultrure.

So, how does a 4th anniversary, celebratory bluegrass party played by the Grammy-nominated Steeldrivers in an acoustical masterpiece of a hole in the ground sound?

Pretty amazing.

But how does it sound to you?

John Paul White of the Civil Wars. Photo by Mary Claire Crow

Not to mention that while it’s 90 plus degrees up here, it’s around 55 degrees down there.

Unfortunately, the Steeldrivers show is sold out, but The Pulse will be giving some tickets away. Just text “bluegrass” to 86568 for a chance to win a couple for you and anyone you’d like to make a happy spelunker on Aug. 11.

For anyone wishing to catch the action on air, Nashville broadcasts on WNPT HD 8.1 while East Tennessee broadcasts out of Cookeville’s WCTE on Channel 22. Check your local listing because times may vary.

For more information on the Bluegrass Underground series at Cumberland Cavern and The Volcano Room, including ticket information on the upcoming Town Mountain with Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen show, Oct. 13’s Peter Rowan’s Bluegrass Band show and Ralph Stanley on Oct. 27, visit bluegrassunderground.com.


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