Relix 44: ‘Bluegrass Underground’ at The Caverns
photo by Michael Weintrob
Welcome to the Relix 44. To commemorate the past 44 years of our existence, we’ve created a list of people, places and things that inspire us today, appearing in our September 2018 issue and rolling out on Relix.com throughout this fall. See all the articles posted so far here.
Shine a Light: Bluegrass Underground at The Caverns
“It was Memorial Day of 2008, and I walked into a cave one man and I came out another,” Bluegrass Underground creator Todd Mayo explains. Mayo was born and raised in Tennes- see, which is said to have the largest number of explorable caves in the Unites States. (“People say, ‘Where are you from?’ and I tell them: ‘I was born in the West, schooled in the East and I live in the middle.’ That’s not California, New York and Kansas— That’s Memphis, Knoxville and Nash- ville!”) However, he had never set foot in a cave until May 2008 and it only happened because he had failed to reserve a pontoon boat in advance during a family vacation, so he opted to visit Cumberland Caverns.
Mayo, who works in advertising, was a music fan, not an industry professional; however, he had an epiphany when he reached The Caverns’ Volcano Room. As he recalls, “I looked at the tour guide and I asked, ‘Do ya’ll have live music down here?’ She said, ‘No, but that’d be a good idea’ and I said, ‘Man, I’m gonna call your general manager.’ It honestly was one of those ideas that hit spontaneously. That night I said, ‘I’m gonna call it Bluegrass Underground and I immediately started working to put something together.
It’s pretty crazy to look back on it because seven weeks later, we had our first Bluegrass Underground with Chris Stapleton and the Steeldrivers and it was on WSM radio, home of the Grand Ole Opry. In the very first six months, we had the Infamous Stringdusters, Tim O’Brien with Dennis Crouch, Stuart Duncan and the Grascals. We had the Silver Jews do their last show ever in a cave, which definitely put the underground into Bluegrass Underground.”
Mayo formed a production company, Todd Squared, with Todd Jarrell, who originally had come down to interview him for NPR and, within a couple years, they landed the program on PBS.
This past spring, Bluegrass Underground moved to a new location in Pelham, Tenn., which they’ve simply dubbed The Caverns. As Mayo explains, “The cave where we did the show is a very special place but, as a music venue, we were pushing a round peg in a square hole because their core business was never music; it was tours and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and all that. So we were never able to put permanent power or sound in there. It was really hard to get to. It was cool, but it wasn’t the ideal cave for music. I’ve been searching for something that could be more ideally suited for the long haul for years.” This new location is featured on the eighth season of the PBS show, which kicked off with a special performance by Brandi Carlile.
“When asked to identify his favorite sets over the past decade, the longstanding Spreadhead names Widespread Panic and then adds, “At that very first show with Chris Stapleton and the Steeldrivers, I said to Todd Jarrell, ‘It will never get better than it has today, but we’re gonna have a lot of fun trying.’ That band and that time was truly epic. But right now, I also feel the same way about Billy Strings as I did about the Steeldrivers in 2008.
We’ve got another show coming up that I’m really looking forward to—Scott Miller and John Moreland. I can’t think of two better songwriters that people don’t know that they ought to listen to. That’s what I love about what we do: We can bring all sorts of people together from all backgrounds to see the music, and it’s a musical adventure about shining a light into the darkness on artists that need to be discovered.”
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.