By Clinton Gill
Tennessee is known for many things – Jack Daniels, the Great Smoky Mountains, walking horses and Memphis-style barbecue, to name a few. But without question, the state’s greatest claim to fame is music. From Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin to Dolly Parton and too many country music stars to name, residents have built the state into an internationally recognized brand.
Musical talent certainly runs deep in Tennessee. In fact, Tennessee is home to one of the most unique concert venues in the world, where musicians perform 333 feet below the earth’s surface in the Volcano Room of Cumberland Caverns.
Tennessee is the most cavernous state in the nation, boasting more than 8,600 known systems. Cumberland Caverns is Tennessee’s largest commercial cave, with 32 miles of mapped tunnels all formed by ancient rivers rushing through the limestone rock. The climate is a constant 56 degrees Fahrenheit year round, but it is incredibly damp, with 99 percent humidity.
According to legend, the main entrance to the Cumberland Caverns was discovered by Aaron Higgenbotham in 1810 while he was out surveying. Higgenbotham became stranded on a high ledge when his torch went out. Two of the most important rules for caving are: 1) always have enough light and 2) always let someone know where you are going. Luckily, Higgenbotham followed at least one of them. He was stuck down there in complete darkness for three days until rescuers could reach him. It’s said the ordeal turned his hair white. The cave was hence named Higgenbotham Cave until it was developed for the public in 1955 and the name was changed to Cumberland Caverns.
Each month, Cumberland Caverns hosts a concert with top performers in Americana style music merging country, folk, blues and rock and roll into an unforgettable experience. Now in its fourth season, the Bluegrass Underground has been wildly successful. With stars such as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Old Crow Medicine Show filling the bill, the shows have piqued the attention of NBC Nightly News, the Huffington Post and PBS. In fact, PBS broadcasts the concerts nationwide, much like Austin City Limits.
According to the Huffington Post, more than 60 PBS markets, including Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Seattle, have picked up the show. Check local listings for “Bluegrass Underground” on your local PBS station. Bluegrass Underground can also be seen live at Cumberland Caverns. Live performances are streamed world-wide on wsmonline.com. Performances can also be heard over the radio on 650 WSM at 5 p.m. (central) on Saturdays, right before the Grand Ole’ Opry.
The Volcano Room is enormous, with enough room to drive several cars in, 600 people can comfortably enjoy the shows there’s even a snack bar and fully functional restrooms inside the cave. Aside from concerts, the Volcano Room is often used for meetings, banquets and weddings. This ballroom features a stunning three-quarter ton crystal chandelier that originally hung in the Loews Metropolitan Theatre in Brooklyn, NY, in 1928. The chandelier is 15 feet tall, 8.5 feet wide and contains 150 various color bulbs and countless hand cut crystals. It hangs 40 feet above the stage. Nature spent thousands of years creating porous and uneven surfaces that make for incredible acoustics – better than any manmade structure in the world, according to Todd Mayo, producer of the Bluegrass Underground. To be sure, there’s really not a bad seat in the house.
For more info and to purchase tickets: go to www.bluegrassunderground.com.