When the pandemic shut down the live-concert industry last year, Todd Mayo, the founder and operator of the Caverns, a subterranean performance space outside Nashville, faced a concert calendar as empty as his hole in the ground.
Since opening in 2017, the Caverns in Pelham, Tennessee, has become a music destination — an underground, albeit smaller, version of Colorado’s Red Rocks — known for its pristine natural beauty and striking acoustics. It typically bustles with 75 live performances a year, but fell quiet in 2020 after just three shows in its 1,200-capacity Big Mouth Cave. At the same time, filming for the new season of Bluegrass Underground, the Emmy-winning PBS music series that Mayo co-created and tapes at the Caverns, was also scrapped.
Rather than hang his head, Mayo, an unfailing optimist with a background in advertising and a penchant for armchair philosophy, shifted his gaze above ground to pull off one of the most graceful pivots by a venue in the pandemic era.
“We were literally in the dark,” Mayo says of those early months during the shutdown. “We were hemorrhaging money like every other music venue. We thought, ‘Could you make [the Caverns] work at 25% capacity?’ And you can’t. So we were resigned to the fact that we were going to have to wait this thing out.”
But Mayo isn’t good at waiting. So, after hearing about socially distanced “pod” concerts being held in the U.K. while on a call with Jason Isbell’s booking agent, he wondered if the same setup might work at the Caverns. He and his team scouted a location for a stage at the base of a nearby hill, measured out viewing pods for fans, and booked Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit for four test concerts in October 2020. Each one sold out.
“Once we said Jason was coming for four nights, we’re like, ‘Fuck it, we’re doing this, man,'” Mayo says. “We were moving 500 truckloads of dirt a day. We built an amphitheater in six weeks with stage, sound, and lights.”
Opening with those four Isbell gigs last fall, the Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater went on to host shows by NeedToBreathe, Blackberry Smoke, and Lucero, and has socially distanced concerts scheduled well into the summer from artists like Margo Price, Grace Potter, and Trampled By Turtles.
“The story is how in a pandemic, during a really tough time, you can reimagine what the experience could be,” Mayo says.
To make his vision work, however, Mayo understood a harsh reality: The fans would have to reimagine their experience too. They’d also have to make some sacrifices, which, during a year when so much has already been asked of people, could be a hard sell.
“The patrons need to buy in. We need them to come at staggered times and arrive earlier. We need them to leave like at church: ‘Here’s your aisle,’ like going to communion. They’re going to have to wear their masks. They’re going to have to use this app [for concessions] and download it,” Mayo says. “But the great thing was we pulled it off. You’ve heard the cliché: If you build it, they will come.”
While originally a decision born out of necessity, the pivot to outdoor shows is expanding the Caverns’ reach. When the subterranean venue reopens later this year — shows are tentatively scheduled to resume in late summer, with taping for Season 10 of Bluegrass Underground to follow — the Caverns Above Ground will remain available to host larger concerts and accommodate more fans. There are plans to build a permanent stage and install tiered seating to complement the field area. “Now we’ve got a 5,000-person amphitheater on our hands to go along with the magic cave,” Mayo says.
But the centerpiece of the Caverns will always be its namesake geological wonder. Mayo predicts music will resonate inside the rocks long after some of our most heralded manmade venues are long gone.
“You know, the Taj Mahal, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Hall, they’ll all be dust. But if there’s human beings on this Earth, they’ll be coming to see music in the Caverns 10,000 years from now,” says Mayo, determinedly. “It’s not going anywhere.”