Outdoor concerts return to The Caverns, Bonnaroo

Margo Price performed her first concert since the pandemic at The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater over Memorial Day weekend.
Courtesy of Michael Weintrob
Caption
Margo Price performed her first concert since the pandemic at The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater over Memorial Day weekend. Courtesy of Michael Weintrob

Credit: Michael Weintrob

Credit: Michael Weintrob

Middle Tennessee venues open up for summer concert season

Summer means outdoor concert season is back after a hiatus last year due to the pandemic.

A few months ago, the thought of hitting the road to see live music was almost unthinkable. But vaccines and altered mask guidelines changed all that in short order. By Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like the floodgates had opened for travel, so I headed to the rural South Cumberland area of middle Tennessee where two renowned music venues less than 25 miles apart — The Caverns and Bonnaroo Farm — began their summer concert seasons.

Bonnaroo Farm in Manchester, Tennessee, is home to the internationally famous Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which normally occurs in June but has been moved to Labor Day weekend this year. But it also hosts individual concerts throughout the season on its main stage. The Caverns in nearby Pelham, Tennessee, stages subterranean concerts inside its showcase caverns. It is home of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “Bluegrass Underground.”

Underground shows will return to The Caverns this summer beginning with Todd Snider on July 24.
Courtesy of Michael Weintrob
Caption
Underground shows will return to The Caverns this summer beginning with Todd Snider on July 24. Courtesy of Michael Weintrob

Credit: Michael Weintrob

Credit: Michael Weintrob

The Caverns’ underground shows stopped when the pandemic began, but organizers adapted by creating an outdoor amphitheater on a hillside next to the cave entrance with socially distanced, pod-style seating. Called The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater, it debuted in October 2020 with shows by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

Bonnaroo Farm also adopted a similar pod-style setup. Both venues will retain pod seating for this year’s summer shows, but they have also added general admission lawn seating.

Despite the similarities of their outdoor setting and geographic location, the venues are quite different. Owned by the entertainment conglomerate Live Nation, Bonnaroo Farm accommodates 90,000 people and operates like a typical large, corporate concert venue with a sizable staff of security personnel and ushers present from the parking lot to the stage.

The Caverns can hold up to 1,200 people below ground for standing-room-only shows (they have lesser-capacity seated shows) and 1,000 above ground in the pod setup. But owner Todd Mayo says the above-ground venue will have a capacity of 5,500 without the pods. It has security and ushers, too, but it operates more like a family business. When I arrived to see Americana act Margo Price perform her first live show since the pandemic, Mayo was at the entrance, greeting patrons as they arrived and giving small group tours of the grounds, above and below.

In a pre-show tour of the facilities, Mayo explained how the amphitheater was carved out of the hillside last fall. “In five weeks we created and built an amphitheater. This was all forest, like this,” he said, pointing toward the densely wooded cave entrance.

The idea for the amphitheater came about when Mayo received a call last August from the manager for Jason Isbell, who wanted to play a show outdoors at The Caverns. In an inverse “Field of Dreams” moment, Mayo told Isbell’s manager, “If y’all come, we’ll build it.”

In addition to building the Above Ground Amphitheater during the height of the pandemic, Mayo also opened up another section of the caverns for cave tours during the day.

The Savage Gulf unit of South Cumberland State Park is less than 25 miles from The Caverns and boasts some of Tennessee's most scenic vistas and hiking trails.
Courtesy of Blake Guthrie
Caption
The Savage Gulf unit of South Cumberland State Park is less than 25 miles from The Caverns and boasts some of Tennessee's most scenic vistas and hiking trails. Courtesy of Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

The Caverns sits at the base of the Cumberland Plateau, tucked into the folds of the mountainside and surrounded by some of Tennessee’s most striking scenery.

Nearby is South Cumberland State Park, Tennessee’s largest state park, spanning three counties in noncontiguous sections. About 20 miles from The Caverns, the Savage Gulf section is a great place for hiking the Cumberland Plateau from top to bottom. The easy 2-mile Stone Door hike has multiple rock outcroppings offering long-range mountain views and leads to a narrow stone passageway called the Great Stone Door that connects the rim of the plateau to the valley below. Foster Falls in the Fiery Gizzard section is a beautiful 60-foot-plunge waterfall 18 miles from The Caverns.

The Caverns will resume its underground shows on July 24 with Todd Snider performing. Bring a light jacket or some layered clothing for any cave show since the temperature inside the underground concert hall hovers around 59 degrees year-round.

Accommodations near The Caverns include The Sewanee Inn on the grounds of The University of the South and the family-run Smoke House Lodge and Cabins in Monteagle. The Smoke House recently lost its longtime namesake restaurant to a fire, but the lodge and cabins are still open for business.

The main stage at Bonnaroo Farm hosts individual concerts this summer with seating in socially distanced, four-person pods and a large general admission lawn area. 
Courtesy of Maria Jimenez
Caption
The main stage at Bonnaroo Farm hosts individual concerts this summer with seating in socially distanced, four-person pods and a large general admission lawn area. Courtesy of Maria Jimenez

Credit: Maria Jimenez

Credit: Maria Jimenez

Mainstream country star Jon Pardi was the headliner the following night at Bonnaroo Farm. The weather was unseasonably cool and, like the Margo Price show the night before, saw intermittent rain showers. It served as a reminder of the downside of outdoor concerts: sudden changes in the weather. Don’t forget to pack a poncho; umbrellas are a no-no due to line-of-sight issues. You can probably leave the light jacket behind when the Avett Brothers do a three-night stand at Bonnaroo Farm over the Fourth of July weekend.

While camping is a huge part of the Bonnaroo festival experience, it’s not allowed for individual shows. But there are plenty of chain hotels located off the interstate near the farm.

One thing that became evident over Memorial Day weekend was that the artists are just as excited to be back as the fans. Pardi’s opening act Jameson Rodgers informed the crowd it was his first time performing his single “Some Girls” live since it had become a No. 1 hit on the country charts during the pandemic.

At the end of her show at The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater, Margo Price stepped off the stage and handed out roses to the crowd, a gesture demonstrating how grateful she was to finally play in front of a live audience again.

The Avett Brothers performing at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2018.
Caption
The Avett Brothers performing at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2018.

Upcoming shows

THE CAVERNS

Umphrey’s McGee. July 9, Above Ground Amphitheater. $79.50 and up.

Blues Traveler. July 18, Above Ground Amphitheater. $60 and up.

Todd Snider. July 24, underground show. $55 and up.

Amy Grant. Aug. 15, underground show. $49.50 and up.

BONNAROO FARM

The Avett Brothers. July 2-4. $35 and up.

Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Sept. 2-5. Weekend passes sold out; combination hotel and ticket packages start at $2,299.

If you go

The Caverns. Concerts $34.50 and up. 555 Charlie Roberts Road, Pelham. 931-516-9724, www.thecaverns.com.

Bonnaroo Farm. $35 and up. 1560 New Bushy Branch, Manchester. 512-674-9300, www.bonnaroofarm.com.

Stay

Sewanee Inn. $199 and up. 1235 University Ave., Sewanee. 931-598-3568, sewanee-inn.com.

The Smokehouse Lodge and Cabins. Rooms $70 and up, cabins $160 and up. 844 W. Main St., Monteagle. 800-489-2091, thesmokehouse.com.

Eat

Common John Brewing Company. Craft brewery serving flatbread pizzas, sandwiches and snacks. $5.99 and up. 210 Woodbury Hwy., Manchester. 931-954-5387, www.commonjohnbc.com.

Shenanigans. Popular hangout for students and music fans featuring live music and serving pizzas, sandwiches and salads. $6.95 and up. 12595 Sollace M. Freeman Hwy., Sewanee. 931-598-5774, www.shenanigans1974.com.

Visitor info

Experience Tennessee Welcome Center. 110 E. Main St., Manchester. 931-728-7635, www.experiencetn.com.