We all have our favorite places to hear live music, but a music venue is occasionally more than just a building. Sometimes – and these are rare– the PLACE ITSELF changes the experience.
Sometimes, the location adds a new dimension to the performance by magnifying and enhancing what it already is or providing contrast. This sound-place-atmosphere alchemy might be difficult to pinpoint, but these places are undoubtedly easily recognized by audiences. Concert-goers fortunate enough to take in an event held in a beloved physical space with an almost mystical atmosphere come away from a show noting not just the music but the SPACES that momentarily embraced that music.
Some say Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, Colo., is just that kind of magical place. For others, it’s the Sydney Opera House, Radio City Music Hall, or Royal Albert Hall in London.
Another landmark offers a unique sonic experience and should be added to that list: The Caverns in Pelham, Tenn. Those familiar with the PBS Series “The Caverns Sessions,” filmed there, will already be familiar with what makes it special. Just as Red Rocks Amphitheatre is a venue created out of the earth itself, this hidden gem in Tennessee uses a cave system to elicit mystique – and atmosphere – for many of its year-round music offerings. Some events, such as large fests, are held “above-ground.” Other, most intimate shows are “underground.”
"What makes an underground concert so special is that the guests and the artist have a shared experience that's amplified by the subterranean setting,” explained the marketing director for The Caverns, Jeff Meltesen. “This contributes to the energy at the shows. We often hear artists say, ‘I can't believe we're playing in a cave!’”
He added, “It's special, and that's not lost on anyone, whether you're in the audience or on stage. What's more, we get lots of compliments on the acoustics of the cave, which are very alive with natural reverb. By no means is The Caverns your typical night club, from the sound to the surroundings."
General Manager Joe Lurgio seconds those sentiments about this unique performance space.
"We are the only cave venue in the world focused on presenting touring artists regularly, with world-class audio, lighting and production,” Lurgio said. He also stresses that the caves are not solely for music; they’re first and foremost for exploring.
“While we are focused heavily on presenting high-quality concert experiences, we also have wild cave tours that take people deeper into the cave system to learn about subterranean ecosystems, geology, history, cave lore, and to take a behind-the-scenes look at the music venue,” Lurgio explained.
"Humans have been connected to caves since the beginning of time, with some of the first art ever drawn found inside a cave,” he continued. “The section of limestone our cave is in stretches all the way up into Kentucky, and folks in these areas have a deep connection to caves, including playing music in caves.”
One of those people was a foremost bluegrass patriarch.
“Bill Monroe was so enchanted by the sounds of bluegrass in caves that he actually recorded a record inside a cave not too far from ours,” Lurgio explained. “There is something magical about hearing the ‘high lonesome sound’ deep inside a cave, almost a connection to the ancient tones that Mr. Monroe often spoke about.”
He added that many on the crew are bluegrass lovers at heart, “and we strive to present bluegrass shows every year, both traditional and newgrass."
In addition to the underground space, The Caverns has a 6,000-person capacity outdoor amphitheater, an on-site campground, and a yurt village. In addition to daily cave tours and “caving expeditions,” a kid’s camp – Camp Caverns – is held in the summer for children aged eight to 14.
While there’s a regular schedule of performers from various genres (check the website at Thecaverns.com for current offerings), two big yearly events are sure to interest bluegrass fans. Now is the time to mark calendars and start making plans. The Big Mouth Bluegrass Festival date has not yet been decided but is expected to happen during the summer of 2024. CaveFest will take place on October 11 through 13, 2024.
"As a destination venue in rural Tennessee, The Caverns is an escape from the hustle and bustle of the suburbs and the city – it's even an escape from the Earth's surface,” Meltesen said. “Perhaps that's why the venue resonates with fans of bluegrass, folk and Americana."
Those who can’t plan a trip to The Caverns can get a taste of the experience by taking in an episode or two – or three – of the PBS series shot onsite.
"Formerly known as Bluegrass Underground, The Caverns Sessions is the longest-running music series on American television after Austin City Limits,” Meltesen explained. “With 12 years of episodes, many Grammy winners have appeared on the show, which airs nationwide on PBS stations, on the PBS website, and through the PBS streaming app. New episodes are available on Wednesdays this Fall, and we're hard at work on the next season."