Deep in the heart of McMinnville, Tennessee lies a cave system known as Cumberland Caverns.  Within those caverns lies a place 333 feet underground known as the Volcano Room. The Volcano Room is where musical magic happens once a year as the space comes alive with cameras, musicians, and fans for the annual filming of PBS’ Bluegrass UndergroundLive For Live Music was there to capture the entire production, from empty cavern to the last fan leaving when filming wrapped. We take you in-depth through the intensive process of what it takes to film a television show almost a football field deep underground in front of a live audience.

First, a little background about the site. Originally discovered in 1810, the caves became a source of saltpeter mining, for gunpowder, during the War of 1812 and, many speculate, for the Civil War as well. Throughout the caves, names and dates are “candled” on the walls and ceilings, with the oldest known dating back to 1869. The caves are now open for daily tours, as well as Bluegrass Underground’s monthly musical events. PBS, however, films once a year, over three consecutive days, for Bluegrass Underground’s next television season. The most recent production, for Season VII, included such acts as Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Blues Traveler, Conor Oberst, and The Mavericks, to name a few.

Todd Mayo, Creative Director and Co-Producer of Bluegrass Underground, explained where the idea for having a cave as a music venue came from. “It came about in a very serendipitous way. It was 2008, Memorial Day, and I had been coming up to this part of Tennessee for years. We were looking for something to do on Memorial Day. We originally tried to rent a pontoon boat, but they were sold out. For some reason I thought, let’s go see Cumberland Caverns.  I had never been. After years of driving by, we loaded up and took the tour. Having never been in a cave, I remember walking through, but it just hit me. I said to the tour guide at the end of the tour, ‘do you have live music down here?’ Right when I saw the Volcano Room, with the chandelier above, I had the idea just in my head, ‘music here.’ 

I had been thinking of an idea to do a show, and was trying to think of a way to marry what I enjoyed with what I was good at. I didn’t have any music background, but I loved sports and I loved music. About six months before I walked in the cave, I walked away from sports radio. I thought I would never own anything that was truly mine again. I had let go and knew that my destiny was in Tennessee.

When I walked into the cave, I knew this was it. That very night, I thought of the name Bluegrass Underground. I was consumed with it.  The next day, I called the general manager and came back to the caverns. I told them about the idea, I found a sponsor and put up a website.

I booked Chris Stapleton and The Steeldrivers. All this happened from late May and our first show was August 16th. At the very first show, a guy from NPR came to interview me. One thing lead to another, and when he came to interview me, I explained to him that I had a vision for a PBS show, sort of an Austin City Limits meets NOVA. It was Todd Jarrell, who did independent productions for public television. In 2010, we did a pilot for PBS. Todd had a relationship with Becky Magura, who is the CEO of one of the smallest PBS affiliates in the country, WCTE, but one of the best in terms of what they do. The rest is sort of history, and that’s how it all began.”

Mayo’s partner, Todd Jarrell, added his thoughts on the evolution of the project. As a former drummer, and then being involved in advertising for both radio and television, he moved to Nashville and reached a point where he could not work in advertising one more day. He decided to sail around the world with his brother and started writing while on that journey. After spending about six or seven years at sea, he had gotten a chance to move into television production. The first show he did was based out of Tennessee, New York, and Africa and got picked up by PBS. He never looked back.

Jarrell found out about the first music show at Cumberland Caverns. He pitched it to his editor, came to the show and interviewed Mayo. “After interviewing him, we ended up talking that day for hours. We came up with what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and we didn’t have any money.  How was this going to work? It took about two years before we got the pilot shot. I knew Becky was getting this new suite of gear. We called her up and asked if we could use her brand new cameras in the cave.  Much to her credit, she said ok. For the pilot, we shot three bands in one day: The McCrary Sisters with Mike Farris, The Farewell Drifters, and The John Cowan Band. We pitched it to PBS. They finally said, ‘we’ll take it.’ We finished the season. We shot 11 bands, and the 12th show was a compilation of out-takes from that season. That was season 1.

A lot of people thought we were crazy to do a half hour TV show, but it’s the fastest half hour on television. It’s a visually stimulating program with music. It’s a good pairing for other art shows.  It’s a good pairing for other music, like Austin City Limits. We have been named one of the coolest venues by a long list. It’s got a reputation. It’s a cool room, and it sounds good, but a lot of it’s the lighting and just where you are.

One of my favorite things about it is that there is not a backstage, or a side stage. The equipment, and the band members, come up through the crowd and go out through the crowd. There’s no corners, and no curtain. Experientially, it’s as unique for the band as it is for the audience. The band is staring around the room just like everybody else. It’s intimate. It feels like an ‘us’ thing instead of a ‘we and you’ thing. I think that comes across on television.”

As for the production process itself, it takes days to get the room set up for filming.  Load-in started on Wednesday, and continued until the last minute touches were wrapped up on Friday, the first day of filming. On the first day of set up, cables were snaked along the sides of the cave walls, starting outside where the power and production truck were, and ended at the equipment in the Volcano Room. Roughly 6,000 feet of cable, with each coil weighing 100 pounds, were laid out.

While that was going on, ATV’s hauling trailers were loaded up with all of the production gear, from lighting rigs, camera equipment, and backline gear, to concession snacks, audience chairs, and merchandise. Gear would be loaded up on three trailers at a time, hauled down, unloaded, then back up for another round.  This went on all day long, each day, until the artists and their gear were driven down and doors opened.

The slight taste of dust in the mouth, and a consistent dampness in the air, along with the constant dim lighting in the cave, made it easy to forget the time, as well as what was happening above ground. Meanwhile, tour groups were taken along a path above the stage and would stop to watch the activity below in awe.

Moving vehicles, sound and lighting setup, and the constant hustling by the crew, made for visually stimulating action, never knowing which way to turn to watch the latest progress within the room. The one constant in the room was the stunning chandelier that hung high above the activity, which provided light and beauty to the natural setting.

On day two of load in, lighting trusses were rigged and lifted into place, creating a colorfully lit cavern instead of working in the dimly lit room, though headlamps remained the norm with all crew. Details were taken care of before and during filming.  For example, wiring from the above stage lights were rigged with camouflage. Bench seating were darkened so that the bright metal would not show up on film. It was the details that made all the difference.

On Friday, the ten cameras were positioned into place, ranging from behind the stage, to above the audience, ensuring that every angle was captured. Concessions were readied, the merch area was set up, and tour buses showed up early. VIP ticket holders had the opportunity to not only tour the cave before the show, but many were able to catch portions of sound check with the various acts before doors opened. Once doors opened, the crew was ready to go for the next three days.

To grasp the enormity of the prep work that goes into making this show, most venues have a loading dock for trucks to pull up to and unload, making for ease of movement with gear.  Surfaces are usually flat and smooth, so gear can be pushed easily and quickly into a venue.  The Volcano Room was deep underground, with all gear having to go on a 15-20 minute ride into the cave, only to be met with constant dirt and uneven surfaces.  Even the stage was dirt. It is easy to see why Bluegrass Underground has won so many Emmy’s – 15 in all, including wins for Technical Achievement, Lighting, Audio, and Director, to name a few.

With four acts performing each day, the production truck, where director Jim Yockey worked, was where the magic happened for the televised show. Yockey, along with colleague Cindy Brewer, worked tightly together as they instructed the camera operators on positioning and upcoming changes in music. It was a well oiled machine between the two of them, as they spoke into the headset, sometimes talking over each other, advising the camera crew on next actions.

Yockey and Brewer were provided with set lists for each band a month prior to filming, along with MP3’s of the songs.  Within that month, they learned each song inside and out, which aided in their directing during the live production. Knowing when to anticipate certain changes, such as one musician jamming out on a tambourine mid-song, allowed camera positions to be set up before the shot. Once a band went off the set-list, it was on the fly directing, and the camera crew maintained professionalism and level heads to get the shots that would make for a spectacular televised series. With each band having a 45 minute set, it allowed for editing purposes post-production to bring their performance down to a half hour show.

However, even with planning, unexpected situations may arise during filming. While Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors were performing, an EMT crew had to drive down into the cave. Holcomb stopped early in the song to allow the vehicle to get to it’s destination before starting again.

Fans that have never been to a live taping experienced a funny start to the show. The audience was asked to provide 30 seconds each of various modes of laughter and clapping, from light golf clapping to loud clapping full of whistles as if it’s an encore. The experience alone broke the ice before the musicians took to the stage for the next few hours. In between sets, all gear, as well as the musicians themselves, were moved off and on stage through the audience. The intimate experience was one that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance. If you haven’t been to the venue yet, put it on your bucket list. It is one of the most beautiful and unique venues in the country.

For something to do on the the weekend while filming was not occurring, the town of McMinnville featured a Taste of The Underground event on Saturday night, as well as Brunch & Bluegrass on Sunday, both of which were held at The Park Theater. There was a band competition, which featured Asheville’s The Broadcast and Nashville’s Daniel Lawrence Walker. In the end, The Broadcast walked away with the win, and will be performing at an upcoming concert in the Volcano Room.

The three day filming for Season VII featured the following artists: The Mavericks, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Conor Oberst, Kasey Chambers, The McCrary Sisters, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors, Parker Millsap, Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Blues Traveler, and Don Bryant & The Bo-Keys. You will be able to catch these shows on your local PBS station in September.  For more information on Bluegrass Underground, please visit their official website.

Words and pre-production photos by Sarah Bourque.  Additional photos courtesy of Shelly Swanger.

Special thanks to Todd Squared Productions, James Yockey, Joe Lurgio, and Brian Sullivan.