Bluegrass Underground celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend with a lineup that included Band of Horses and The SteelDrivers.
But instead of taking place at its longtime home at Cumberland Caverns, the three-day event was held at a different cave in Grundy County.
Bluegrass Underground creator Todd Mayo says the 10-year milestone gave him time to reflect on his popular concert series. During its storied run in Warren County, Bluegrass Underground was like a three-part harmony for tourism, bringing people to this community from around the world.
So what went wrong? Why did the concert series take its banjo and go?
One year after the decision to leave in August 2017, Mayo and Cumberland Caverns president Jim Herschend have made their first public comments to the Standard. While their recollections of the failed negotiations differ, the length of the Bluegrass Underground lease seems at the heart of debate.
Said Mayo, “After nine years of partnership, where through my ideas and efforts I brought in hundreds of thousands of tourists and dollars, as well as tens of millions of dollars of branding via PBS and all the other great press: MTV, NBC, The Tennessean, Washington Post and on and on, all I wanted was a long-term contract so I could continue to work countless hours to make Cumberland Caverns more money and more famous. What they told me instead was not only wouldn’t they give me a long-term contract, but if I didn’t sign a short-term deal with more money for them, then they would take my idea and do it without me. I guess sad and disappointed is a bit of an understatement.”
Herschend says Mayo was seeking a 99-year lease, while Cumberland Caverns countered with a 10-year lease with an automatic renewal for 10 years after that. Herschend says in talking to other people in the entertainment industry, those terms were deemed generous.
“It was assumed I was letting this golden goose wander off when I was really working as diligently as I could to try to keep it alive,” said Herschend. “We put together a package we think was rather attractive, but then we found out Todd had purchased another cave and was already moving dirt so he never had any intentions of staying.”
Herschend says he believes the real source of friction is Cumberland Caverns would not agree to allow alcohol sales during Bluegrass Underground concerts. He says Mayo has heavily promoted beer sales at his new venue.
“I know the Ryman made a surprising shift in its policies and allowed alcohol sales and it’s certainly a revenue stream,” said Herschend. “But it doesn’t fit with our business model and our philosophy at Cumberland Caverns. Our primary business is serving kids and providing the adventure business of caves and that’s not compatible with serving liquor in the cave.”
Mayo says customers have expressed their approval of being able to buy adult beverages at his new home, called The Caverns, but alcohol was not a focal point of contract negotiations. He says he believes Cumberland Caverns was eager to take his idea and promote shows without him in the picture.
“To me it’s theft of intellectual property,” said Mayo. “Now it’s America and all is fair in business but, to me, it is profoundly sad and disappointing. But I have to say, they did declare their intentions to take my idea and do it without me and so it’s not like I’m shocked.”
The end result is there are now two cave-based concert series in adjoining counties. The caves are located just 41 miles apart, according to MapQuest.
Mayo says he is on pace to sell 2.5 times more tickets for Bluegrass Underground at his new location than in 2017. He says he has scheduled 45 concerts this year, up from 30 that was his “sweet spot” in Warren County.
“I now have a venue that I own and can control and the folks in Grundy County are exactly like the folks in McMinnville always were: enthusiastic, positive and asking ‘How can we help?’” said Mayo. “I love that about McMinnville, Grundy County and Tennesseans in general. But I’ll always be sad for McMinnville that we were forced to leave by the powers that be at Cumberland Caverns.”
Herschend says they have made considerable improvements to enhance the guest experience at Cumberland Caverns and launched their own concert series earlier this year called Cumberland Caverns Live. Improvements include padded seats, a raised stage, and a second women’s bathroom.
Herschend admits having two concert series located so close together has created confusion. He said guests have arrived at Cumberland Caverns expecting to see a show when in fact the concert that night is in Grundy County.
It doesn’t help that some online resources still list Bluegrass Underground as taking place in the Volcano Room of Cumberland Caverns. But Herschend says he believes fans will become accustomed to the two separate locations over time.
“There’s nothing that says you can’t have two successful underground cave concerts,” said Herschend, who has partnered with Atlanta-based RCS Productions to book acts. “I really want to keep everything positive. I wish Todd and his crew the best of results and we have moved on and we’re now working with RCS. We have exciting things for 2018 and 2019 in the works.”