The marriage of natural wonder and modern ingenuity are unmistakably evident in Cumberland Caverns' Volcano Room. Located an hour and a half southeast of Nashville in McMinnville, the caverns are breathtaking, and the Volcano Room, as Bluegrass Underground creator and producer Todd Mayo puts it, "could be the most unique venue around."
Mayo was backpacking through the caverns with his family several months back when he stumbled upon the Volcano Room. More than 300 feet below the earth's surface and adorned with a 1,500-pound crystal chandelier rescued from the Loews Metropolitan Theatre in Brooklyn, the Volcano Room immediately looked to Mayo like an untapped resource. It took little effort to convince Cumberland Caverns' management to stage monthly bluegrass shows in the caverns, and WSM was only too happy to broadcast the events.
With performances from acclaimed local bluegrass acts including The SteelDrivers and The Grascals, Bluegrass Underground was an instant hit. The natural acoustics of the Volcano Room allowed acts to play mostly unamplified. "It's akin to a concert in a recording studio," says Mayo, "Austin City Limits-meets-NOVA."
Not long after the shows were first broadcast, Mayo was contacted by a seemingly unlikely fan—Silver Jews frontman and principal songwriter David Berman, who came across the Bluegrass Underground's website. Country-tinged and thoughtful as the Jews' material may be, it hardly seemed like the perfect fit for the BU shows when Berman expressed interest in playing the cave in January. But according to Mayo, Berman seemed sincere and genuinely interested, in addition to being "always apprised of what is going on at WSM."
"He has an appreciation and an affinity for the indigenous music of his adopted home," Mayo says.
"The thing was, I didn't want the show to be on WSM!" says Berman. "I don't want to bathe nude in the mainstream! I just wanted to do a concert in a cave."
Berman seems to have a primordial fascination with the concept of playing a show in the depths of the caverns—about as far from the mainstream as a band of the Silver Jews' stature will be permitted to wander. Having only recently embraced touring, Berman seems to already have mixed feelings about where it has led.
"Playing live has been rewarding," says the reclusive singer. "It has been lucrative. But it has been creepy. There is something wrong with the current practices of media consumption. There is something about participating in the music economy that makes me uneasy."
In an email to the Scene earlier this year, Berman intimates that this will be the last Silver Jews show—at least with the current lineup—saying that he and his musical cohorts will perform "all the Joos songs we know" and that the choice to play in a cave is "symbolic."
"Calling this a last show will probably just increase its overvaluation, which is what I'm trying to get away from," Berman muses. "But sometimes you have to announce out loud that you are through with something in order to drop it."
Berman is a man who speaks with a rich degree of hyperbole, but one thing's certain: He intends, at the very least, to make Bluegrass Underground the beginning of the end. "By 'what we do is symbolic,' I simply meant that I plan to bury the band," says Berman. "And that's the last thing I'll say about it."
But in a Jan. 22 post to the Silver Jews' Drag City message board titled "Silver Jews End—Lead Singer Bids his Well-Wishers Adieu," he says a little bit more: "I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to 'Shiny Happy People.'"
See also at Nashville Cream: David Berman: Cream Writer? Probably Not
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