Not just a pickin’ party: Bluegrass Underground serves as centerpiece for live music movement in the UC

Emmy-winning concert series wraps up fourth season with series of sold-out shows

Never before has the idea of spending the night in a cave sounded so good. Literally.

McMinnville’s Cumberland Caverns has long been known as a tourist destination for caving enthusiasts, but since 2008, the underground amphitheater has been home to one of the most unique musical concert series in the country: Bluegrass Underground

Don’t let the name fool you, however – this show is much more than just a pickin’ party. The Emmy-winning program has been airing its concerts on PBS for the past three years and recently finished filming its fourth season with a run of sold-out shows March 7-10.

More than a dozen artists were on hand to tape performances for this fall’s episodes, including Grammy Award-winners Lucinda Williams and The Steep Canyon Rangers, singer-songwriter extraordinaire Jason Isbell, iconic mandolinist David Grisman and jam band royalty Widespread Panic.

Rising stars like Shovels & Rope, Hayes Carll and Davina and The Vagabonds will also be featured in the show’s 2014 season, airing in September.

“Bluegrass Underground has always been about diversity and quality, authentic music,” said the show’s creator and executive producer, Todd Mayo. “It incorporates two of the greatest things about Tennessee, which is natural beauty and musical culture, and those two things intersect down in the cave.”

In January, Bluegrass Underground was recognized with four Midsouth Regional Emmy Awards. Nominated in six overall categories this year, taking home honors in the Best Entertainment Program, Best Director–Program, Best Audio and Best Lighting categories. The show also won an Emmy for Best Lighting at last year’s awards.

For artists and audiences, the uniqueness of Cumberland Caverns is often enough by itself to warrant a trip to McMinnville. But few are prepared for the full experience of being 333 feet below ground in an acoustically pristine cavern known as The Volcano Room.

“Anytime you can get people out of the usual concert element, they kind of listen differently,” said Steep Canyon Rangers banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp. “The people that come down here to the cave are here for one thing, and that’s to enjoy the music. (The producers) make sure the show is diverse and high quality, and it’s in this beautiful, unbelievable space.”

“It’s a little bit overwhelming, but in a great way. The whole experience is really kind of surreal and otherworldly,” added Davina Sowers, whose jazz and blues-infused quintet Davina and The Vagabonds traveled all the way from Minneapolis, Minn., to play. “It’s definitely at the top of our list of experiences and a highlight of our career. Not a lot of musicians can say they’ve had an opportunity to do something like this.”

With help from Bluegrass Underground co-producer Todd Jarrell and WCTE President Becky Magura, Mayo shot a pilot episode of the program and later negotiated a deal in 2011 to start airing the show on the PBS network.

With the added reach of the television broadcasts, Mayo said he has seen visitors attend shows from as far away as Dubai, Thailand and Australia, plus nearly every state in the U.S.

The program currently airs in more than 150 television markets across the country and can be heard live each month on the radio on 650AM WSM.

Even for a Monday night performance, the Widespread Panic taping on March 10 sold out through the Bluegrass Underground website in less than a minute.

“We were getting 50,000 hits a minute on our site,” said Jarrell, whose background is in live television production. “(The Widespread Panic show) got international attention and huge buzz for us. We sold 600 tickets in less than 30 seconds.”

So with the success of Bluegrass Underground and nearby annual festivals like Manchester’s Bonnaroo and the Smithville Jamboree, is the Cumberland Plateau area quietly becoming a hotbed for live music in Tennessee and beyond? Mayo thinks so.

“Absolutely it is,” he said. “In a state that is known for iconic musical locations like Memphis and Nashville and Bristol, I think now you can add the Cumberland Plateau region in that same conversation.”

Episodes of Bluegrass Underground are televised on WCTE every Monday night at 7:30 and again on Thursdays at 9:30. Visit for more information and a listing of Season 4 musical guests.

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