Award-winning Warren County journalist and filmaker Todd Jarrell came out to Bluegrass Underground and produced this piece for NPR…
Cumberland Caverns lie just about an hour’s drive southeast from Nashville, and they’re like many caves in the region: deep and dark. But unlike the others, one room of this expansive cave system seems to be an acoustical oddity that has audiences flocking to hear its very special sound. WPLN’s Todd Jarrell traveled out to Warren County to listen.
Audio for this feature is available here.
JARRELL: Hunched over a dimly lit audio mixing board, recording engineer Phil Harris concentrates on dialing in the sound before the first show of a new concert series titled, Bluegrass Underground. Harris, a Grammy Award-winning producer, says this venue is very different from any others he has worked…
HARRIS: “I mean the room is fantastic. The sound in here is phenomenal. It has a really nice warm sound unlike a lot of other manmade things that you encounter.”
JARRELL: This is the Volcano Room, and there is nothing manmade about it. Waters once covered this area in Tennessee, flowing underground to carve out these rocks, rooms and passageways.
The Volcano Room lies 333 feet below the ground. Ninety-nine percent humidity helps the room feel warmer than its constant 56 degrees. Still, at times you can see your breath. The ceiling—three stories high—arches over an area large enough to seat perhaps 500 people at lengthy picnic tables set out on a dirt floor half the size of a football field. A stage—also dirt—stands only a congenial foot or two above the open seating.
EMCEE: “Ladies and Gentlemen Welcome to Bluegrass Underground. We are excited to have you with us and very proud to have… The Steeldrivers!”
(SONG: East Kentucky Home)
JARRELL: Discovered in 1810 by one Aaron Higgenbotham, the cave opened to the public in 1956. Now each year more than 26,000 visitors like Todd Mayo come to hike, crawl and even camp in Cumberland Cavers’ 27-mile system. Mayo is a partner in Nashville’s Mayo-Gossett Media Group, a radio production company…
MAYO: “I had been talking about wanting to do a show focused on bluegrass and acoustic music for some time and the venue was kind of an X-factor in the deal and happened upon, in the course of the tour, the Volcano Room and I turned to my wife at that point and I said, ‘Wow, this is it.’
JARRELL: Mayo brought sound engineers into the Volcano Room—among them Phil Harris—who confirmed that the acoustics were, in fact, very special
HARRIS: “What makes this room so amazing is the absence of echo.
It amplifies the sound and then as the sound dissipates out into the cave it doesn’t come back.”
(SONG: Where Rainbows Never Die)
JARRELL: The sound pours from the stage, flowing like a current through the rapt room back and back into well-worn pathways that crook and climb and disappear—along with the music—somewhere off into the bowels of the earth.
(Where Rainbows Never Die fades out)
JARRELL: Between sets and the band relaxes in the dirt-floored stone dressing-cave tucked behind the stage – not exactly your typical “green room”.
FLEMING: “Yea, it’s a little Flintstone-ish. We’re back to the Stone Age.”
JARRELL: Steeldrivers’ bassist Mike Fleming…
FLEMING: “But you know people in the audience seem to be enjoying it. And I think the whole attraction of being underground, in a cave, listening to music is quite a neat concept, tell you the truth.”
JARRELL: For guitarist Chris Stapleton whose father was a Kentucky coal miner, it’s a personal paradox…
STAPLETON: “I played music so I wouldn’t have to go underground and here I’m playing music underground. Just doesn’t make much sense, I don’t guess. I wanted to take a picture of it and send it to my dad and say this is where I’m playing. (laughs).”
JARRELL: For his part Todd Mayo had no doubts that the Volcano Room of Cumberland Caverns would make an exceptional venue for his Bluegrass Underground concerts…
MAYO: “It performed admirably, as I think it’s probably been doing for at least three and a half million years.”
JARRELL: And for a man promoting the concept of “Cavegrass Music,” that alone is some uncommon quality assurance. For Nashville Public Radio, I’m Todd Jarrell.
(SONG: Blue Side of the Mountain)
By Todd Jarrell at Nashville Public Radio… http://wpln.org/?p=1008