Throughout history, humans have relied on music to carry stories and bring people together. So Rolling Stone and Can-Am are embarking on a road trip to spotlight the artists, venues, and recording studios keeping the storytelling legacy alive today. We’re calling the project Common Tread. Join us as we explore the people and places that bridge the divide between music’s past and future.
Fourteen years ago Todd Mayo took his first cave tour. Midway through, he raised his hand with a question: “Ya’ll play loud music down here?”
No, said the guide, they did not. But she assured him it was a great idea.
“Damn right,” replied Mayo. Ten weeks later, he found a cave in Tennessee that would allow him to host a band and he set up his first concert.
Mayo’s first underground show was a success and he’s been holding cave concerts ever since. He co-produced a live-music series called Bluegrass Underground, which ran for 10 seasons on PBS, and in 2017, he opened his own hole-in-the-ground venue called The Caverns, which has hosted headliners across all genres.
What’s perhaps most mysterious about The Caverns’ origin is that Mayo can’t say exactly why he was so moved to stick musicians underground. The tour that sparked the idea marked the first time he’d ever been inside a cave. At the time, he didn’t work in the music industry and he’d never planned a major event. His career was in advertising.
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But something about entering his first cave lit a short fuse that exploded into an entirely new way to appreciate live music. The Caverns is a 1,200-person subterranean concert hall nested below the crust of Tennessee’s Monteagle Mountain, about an hour from Chattanooga. It’s essentially a cathedral with jagged limestone walls and the music that goes in comes out big and wild. “The unevenness of the surfaces is actually good for sound,” says Mayo. “When you combine music with the cave, it’s just kind of, I don’t know, one and one equal three — or maybe four or five.”
The collaboration between man and nature has given The Caverns a reputation for providing a singular sonic experience and reminds listeners of music’s ancient origin. Long before mixing consoles and digital-effect pedals, we humans played gourd rattles and drums made from stretched animal hides. Go back further and you’ll find rhythm and melody stitched into nature itself — the original percussion was an animal’s beating heart and the original song came from birds who flew among dinosaurs.
Recently, Rolling Stone and Can-Am visited The Caverns. A long gravel road leads the way and the temperature drops to a cool 59 degrees as you head below ground. In homage to the Native Americans who inhabited the caves until the early 1800s, Mayo worked with the Cherokee Nation to create an appropriate inscription for the door that greets fans and musicians on their way in. Burned in the Cherokee’s ancient language, it reads, “Welcome to The Caverns, where the Great Spirit brings all people together through music.”
Perhaps it was the Great Spirit who gave Mayo the idea in the first place, it’s hard to say. But one thing is certain, at its core, music is as natural as life itself. We’d be wise to listen closely.
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