Bluegrass music goes underground in Tenn.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bluegrass music is breathing new life into one of Tennessee's oldest private tourist attractions.

Cumberland Caverns, about 90 miles southeast of Nashville, has become the venue for Bluegrass Underground, a series of live concerts in a giant natural concert hall 333 feet below ground.

The event brings a capacity crowd of 300-plus visitors to its monthly concerts and provides programming for a weekly broadcast on WSM radio prior to the regular Grand Ole Opry performance on Saturday nights.

The concert series started in July 2008 and was the idea of Nashville market executive Todd Mayo.

Caverns General Manager Teddy Jones told The Tennessean the shows have created so much publicity for the attraction near McMinnville that visitor attendance will top 36,000 in 2009, a 40 percent increase from a year earlier.

"We couldn't have asked for a better way to increase our business in the middle of a recession," Jones said.

The caverns were discovered in the early 1800s and have been open to the public since 1956. In the past, the attraction has relied on tourists who like to see natural attractions during road trips and vacations.

"But now we're getting a segment of the population that never considered going to a hole in the ground for fun," he said. "This has opened a whole new audience to us."

Concert tickets typically cost $20, with a cave tour available for an extra $10 or $15, depending on the length of the visit.

Mayo, who is co-owner of Nashville's Mayo Gossett Media Group, got the idea after visiting the caverns last year. His tour ended in the Volcano Room, a natural auditorium carved out of the limestone by running water over thousands of years.

Shortly afterward, Mayo called WSM radio to propose a bluegrass show that could tie in with the legendary country music station and asked if cavern operators were interested in putting music in the Volcano Room.

"It was a marketer's dream," Jones said. "We're now the opening act for the Grand Ole Opry, for goodness sake. People come here from all over the country for the show, and it's a great tie-in for us."

Bluegrass artist Chris Volpe was one of the first to play the Volcano Room. He helped Mayo conduct tests with a sound engineer to determine whether the cave had good acoustics for concerts.

"I thought it was really, really cool," Volpe said of the experience. "I had never done anything quite like that. I drove two hours into the middle of nowhere, then went 400 feet down a hole. But it's pretty awesome in there, and the acoustics are perfect."