Back below the hills of Tennessee

PBS Plus offers Bluegrass Underground as a soft feed from far down in hard rock

The television version of Bluegrass Underground, now distributed in high-def and Surround Sound by PBS Plus, permits the audience to appreciate more vividly the unique auditorium where it’s recorded: southeast of Nashville in Cumberland Caverns, 333 feet below ground near McMinnville, Tenn.

Cherryholmes, a family band, plays in the cave for a November broadcast.

Over the past 3.5 million years, water carved out what is now the acoustically pure Volcano Room with room for 500 seats.

By 2008 the erosion was far enough along that concerts could be held there and Nashville’s famed country-music carrier, WSM-AM, could begin airing Bluegrass Underground’s original radio version. (It airs monthly on Saturdays, just before Grand Ole Opry.)

The video version is produced by a partnership of the production company Loblolly Ventures, PBS member station WCTE in Cookeville, Tenn., and Emmy-winning producer Todd Jarrell.

So far, PBS stations have picked up the show in 60 markets, including Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Seattle. Underwriters include the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, Nissan and the City of McMinnville.

The music strays somewhat from strict bluegrass, with Season 1 acts including Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Darrell Scott, 18 South, Mike Farris and the McCrary Sisters, Cherryholmes, Justin Townes Earle, Mountain Heart, Will Hoge, John Cowan, Monte Montgomery and the Farewell Drifters.

The second season includes superstar Vince Gill. “I figure I’ve played everywhere above ground,” the Country Music Hall of Famer told the AP. “We might as well go see what happens when you go underneath.”

Photos: Collin Peterson.
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