“They say necessity is the mother of invention,” says Todd Mayo, the owner of The Caverns, a subterranean music venue and the new home of The Bluegrass Underground. This past weekend, The Caverns welcomed back their first act in over seven months, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, for a COVID-19 compliant four-night concert run, using an adopted pod-style audience model.
The venue owner moved his Emmy-winning PBS show, the second-longest-running televised music series behind Austin City Limits, in 2018 to Pelham, Tennessee. Aptly named for its enchanting prehistoric space, The Caverns is just as much in the experience business as they are in live music.
Carved out from under the ancient rock walls of the Cumberland Plateau, sounds from beloved bands reverberate across the low, rupestral ceilings to the smoothed stone floor of the Big Mouth Cave that fits 800 to 1,200 standing attendees in normal circumstances.
Upon entering the hallowed terrain, burned into the arched wooden doorway reads in Sequoyah Script, the native Cherokee syllabary: “Welcome to The Caverns, where the Great Spirit brings all people together through music.”
As the inscription suggests, Mayo believes the notion to be true—that music is a universal force. Congregating around music is deeply woven into the fabric of who we are and what we are as Americans. Without the traditional means in which humanity consumes it, there is an inherent disconnect.
Last weekend, Mayo and his team met a moment of unmatched socio-political tension and pandemic-driven isolation with an innovative structural model for live music to continue in a virus-stricken world.
The invention he’s referring to is an adaptation of a proven scientific model from the Gisburne Park music festival in the U.K.
In late June, sans much-needed federal relief, The Caverns crew, along with much of the live music industry, were sitting on their hands until they discovered this pod-concept. The idea arose during a period they now refer to as the “Covid Summer Blues.” With seemingly no foreseeable resolutions, Mayo took it upon himself to become an early adopter of the model, pioneering short-term live music performance solutions while the American people continued to wait.
“We literally came out of the darkness, from the cave, and into the light of a field we own, conveniently located above it,” says Mayo. Overlooking the underground cave system, a dedicated team transformed the rugged terrain into a manicured outdoor amphitheater in just over two months.
Introducing this prototype to the United States is a weighted responsibility. Understanding this, Mayo carefully ensured that they put every precautionary measure in place. This due diligence even included the artist they asked to perform for the country’s first pod-style audience.
“Jason Isbell is the perfect act to launch a new model for two reasons,” Mayo explains. “One, he is among the top American Music artists at the moment, he and the 400 Unit are just incredible. And two, his fans are just the type of fans you want to introduce this with. They’re folks who will be respectful of the privilege of experiencing live music in 2020. Everyone’s going to have to give a little bit, so we’re focused on booking artists with a fan-base that understands we are all in this together.”
What was announced originally as a three-night run sold out in under one hour. It quickly expanded to a four-night experience. As anticipated, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s dedicated cult following traveled far and wide, exhibiting both patience and gratitude for the events which Isbell remarked, “feels like Christmas.”
“Thanks for doing what you had to do so we didn’t have to quit,” Isbell said while engaging an emotive crowd. “We appreciate y’all… It’s been too long so it does our heart a lot of good to see y’all and to play music for you.”
On the evening of Thursday, October 9, guests traveled down the winding gravel road through the valley, arriving at The Caverns at staggered assigned times. After answering COVID-19 screening questions, each attendee received a temperature check.
Inside the gates, masks were mandatory except within the roped-off bounds of two-person, four-person, and six-person socially distanced pods. Pods were measured out for a minimum of 6’ of distance between each other, with 13’ footpaths to maintain social distancing. The accommodations were B.Y.O.C. (chair), and on Saturday afternoon, threatened by Hurricane Delta’s northern track, the early start show permitted umbrellas.
Mayo noted that every attendee of the pod-concept concert receives a V.I.P. experience. There are no lines, and everyone has priority entrance. Pre-ordered refreshments await concertgoers in their designated spaces upon their zone-organized arrival, and refills are available via Q.V. code and delivered promptly, never missing a minute of the show.
After months of idling destruction for many businesses, Congress refuses to strike a bipartisan bill. Their inaction led President Trump to officially table stimulus-talks until after the impending election last week.
November 3 is still weeks away. Mayo expressed his shared fear for the collapse of the live music industry’s intricate ecosystem. The Caverns, an infantile business, has refunded over $600,000 in ticket sales since March.
“From an economic standpoint, we’re on the front lines of this thing,” says Mayo. “We were the first ones out of the pool, and we’ll be the last one back into the pool.”
His hope is two-fold: First, for Congress to recognize the value of arts and culture, especially in this current moment of crisis.
“Sports and music are two things that bring people together. But sports is a zero-sum game—somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose. In music, everyone wins,” the venue owner explains. “So music then is the dominant cultural mechanism by which people from all different backgrounds, political, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality divides, blue-collar and white-collar folks, all come together through music.”
He also hopes that following their successful execution of these events, other promoters and venue owners may reimagine natural beauty and outdoor areas as an economic resource.
“This is not our model, but we’ve proven it here in the States,” says Mayo. “I know other venues don’t have our brand as a destination venue or the scenery. But, this four-night run proves that if you can find some space, even if it’s a nice drive from metropolitan areas, whether it’s a state park or a waterfall or other cool places on Earth, you can start doing these pod-based shows with pre-approved guidelines.”
Given their debut success, The Caverns will continue wielding this model until it is safe again to gather. Tickets sold for future events will be conditional to pandemic-context. When the glorious day of widespread inoculation arrives, the venue will transfer those tickets for an in-cave experience. Until then, music fans will continue to responsibly enjoy the jubilation from their roped off piece of land on the hillside.
The Caverns and Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit donated a portion of proceeds from ticket sales to N.I.V.A.’s Save Our Stages efforts.