RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've been visiting concert venues this summer, and today, we're heading off the map, off the grid. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports from a stage 333 feet underground.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: A four-lane highway turns into a winding strip of asphalt called Dark Hallow Road. That becomes a driveway. And once out of the car, there's still a ways to go through the dense forest on a Tennessee hillside.
Walking down a gravel road toward the mouth of a cave, Cumberland Caverns.
LARRY NAGER: How many people are here for the very first time? All right, all right. Now, as we say, welcome to the really deep South today.
FARMER: Water and time carved out a rotunda nicknamed the Volcano Room that accommodates 600 people, though barely. Some perch on rock outcroppings by the stage. Neon lights accent the limestone walls. A giant chandelier hangs from the craggy ceiling. Today's headliner is the Annie Moses Band. Fiddle player Gretchen Wolaver says she assumed the venue would be more like an outdoor stage under a rock overhang.
GRETCHEN WOLAVER: When you first walk in, you think, wow, this is really a cave, so (laughter). Which, you know, you think you would've felt that anyway, but I didn't so (laughter).
FARMER: There are pros and cons to the subterranean setting. The sound, for one, is unexpected.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANNIE MOSES BAND SONG)
FARMER: This vaulted cavern doesn't create the echoey hall you'd expect. House sound engineer Andy Kern says the cave's uneven surfaces scatter the sound waves and break them up just like in a specially designed video.
ANDY KERN: You know, you always think of the, you know, the three second reverb time, the hello, hello, hello, you know, that just goes on forever. And it's the complete opposite.
FARMER: Then there's the temperature. Concertgoers are wrapped in blankets even though it's the hottest part of the summer. Down here, it's a steady 57 degrees year-round. Unfortunately, the humidity is off the charts, so tuning can be troublesome. And just getting instruments down here is a test in human ingenuity. Concert promoter Todd Mayo recalls when Leon Russell insisted on bringing his signature white piano, a gift from Elton John.
TODD MAYO: He did say, I don't know what your insurance is like, boys, but if this one breaks, it's priceless.
FARMER: Before becoming a destination music venue, this privately owned cave was just a local tourist attraction, hosting church groups and scout troops. In fact, Mayo first came because his family took the hour-long tour over a holiday weekend. Ever the idea man, the cave delivered inspiration.
MAYO: It's just like you're on another planet. And I said to the girl, just like that, without even thinking, y'all ever have live music down here? And she said, no, but that'd be a pretty good idea.
FARMER: Mayo dubbed the concert series Bluegrass Underground. It's now taped for broadcast on many PBS stations. Most shows sell out. It helps when you feature the likes of Americana idol Jason Isbell.
JASON ISBELL: (Singing) There's a man who walks beside me. He is who I used to be.
FARMER: Fans fly in or drive from out of state. Jeff Winn of Alabama is a repeat visitor.
JEFF WINN: It's a rare thing that God created for us. You have to walk and pay a little price to get there, but it is well worth every step.
FARMER: If the natural beauty and acoustics aren't enough of a draw, how about a sound you won't hear - ringing cell phones. Nobody gets service this far underground. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Cumberland Caverns, Tenn.
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