Halloween Underground! “Epic” is a word that gets tossed around a lot at Bluegrass Underground. After all, just look at the place, the magnificent, cathedral-like Volcano Room, the antique Austrian crystal chandelier suspended from the ceiling in a space blessed with equally crystalline acoustics. When you set that table, any concert becomes a special event. After eight years and dozens of shows, it still affects me every time I walk into the mouth of Cumberland Caverns and feel that rush of cool air welcoming me back.
Even so, Oct. 29 will live in BGU history. For the combination of Del & Dawg in the afternoon and The Grateful Ball at night, “epic” just won’t cut it. It was a living encyclopedia of bluegrass – past, present and future – a music marathon that stretched almost 12 hours and featured string bands outside the cave, along with the featured artists underground. Add to that Tennessee’s perfect, summer-like weather set in the golden colors of a Cumberland Plateau autumn and all the stars were definitely aligned. The two shows sold out in record time way back in July and the crowd, which had come from everywhere according to the license plates, was more than ready.
The day began at 1 p.m. with the much-anticipated duo of Del & Dawg – Del McCoury and David Grisman. Both had been here before with their own amazing bands, taping shows for our Bluegrass Underground PBS series. And both are genuine giants of American roots music. Del is “The Voice” of bluegrass, the man who defines “high lonesome” for the 21st Century, a 50-plus year veteran of the best bands in bluegrass, none better than his current Del McCoury Band featuring sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo). David did his traditional bluegrass time with the legendary Red Allen, but is best-known for working with Jerry Garcia, recording “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil” with the Grateful Dead and making those classic Garcia/Grisman duo CDs. But he’s also the Father of Dawg Music and a founder of what later became known as jamgrass. In other words, two great, bona fide legendary musical statesmen who are still creating great new music, role models for us all.
Individually, their previous performances in the cave were truly “epic,” as Bluegrass Undergrounds PBS re-runs prove. But together in the Volcano Room? You better head for the thesaurus.
Del & Dawg’s repertoire is sort of a prequel to bluegrass, going back to the brother duet sound that Bill Monroe got started with and perfected with his brother Charlie before starting that bluegrass thing. They opened their BGU set with “Feast Here Tonight,” by the Monroe Brothers, and went on for more than 90 minutes of classic songs and David’s spanking-new instrumentals. Two men, two instruments, one microphone. Even for longtime fans like myself, hearing them in that stripped-down arrangement was a revelation. The tone of David’s Gibson F5 mandolin ripped through the Volcano room, every note cut like a diamond. Del’s Martin guitar, usually heard driving his band deep in the mix, was in full roar, a master class in the under-appreciated art of rhythm guitar. And even in his 70s, Del’s voice remains a thing of wonder. The clarity, the richness, the full-on soulfulness, shone throughout the show, especially on a luminous “Tennessee Waltz.” The surprise was that David, best known as an instrumental virtuoso, has become a fine singer in his own right. Like I said, these guys aren’t done yet. The journey continues.
But the reason we gather in these special places for music isn’t just the music. The Volcano Room is magic not simply because of visual beauty or acoustics. There’s an intimacy here, enhanced by the stage being only a few inches higher than where the audience is. Musicians don’t look down at the crowd, the way they do on more typical stages. Here, they’re connecting nearly at eye level. Add to that the deep bond between two old friends playing some favorite songs together. These are men who have known each other for more than 50 years; they know each other’s wives, their kids. David helped Ronnie get started on mandolin. The love and respect they have for one another was palpable. For those lucky enough to be there, it was so intimate we were practically eavesdropping, all of us gathered on one big underground porch for an afternoon pickin’ session. By the time Del’s sons and Del McCoury Band bassist Alan Bartram joined in for a full-tilt bluegrass encore, it was already an unforgettable day in the cave.
But we were just getting started. When Del & Dawg were finished signing CDs and other merch, including David’s artist wife Tracy’s beautiful music prints, there was a five-hour intermission before The Grateful Ball. It seemed like half the crowd had tickets for both and for everyone who didn’t want to leave the Cumberland Caverns grounds, there was live music and the Sloppy Top food truck keeping the party going by the parking lot. Jeff Austin took notice . “It’s a full-on festival up there,” he said as he arrived for soundcheck.
And of course it was also a Halloween party. When the crowd piled in at 7 p.m. for The Grateful Ball (seats were pulled to encourage dancing), there were Grateful Dead-themed concert-goers in skull-and-roses outfits, a couple of dancing bears, The Grim Reaper in a barrel (“Hell in a Bucket”), a Big Lebowski ensemble, including a woman dressed as the rug (she really tied The Volcano Room together), a bespectacled Jesus Christ, an elaborate Mad Hatter and a woman dressed in a scout uniform and sash as a “pot Brownie.” Our BGU folks got into the Halloween spirit: associate producer Joe Lurgio as exercise guru Richard Simmons; co-manager Ashlee-Jean Trott as Dolly Parton; BGU producer Todd Mayo was drug kingpin Pablo Escobar; and, in keeping with the day, I was Del McCoury.
Austin, formerly of first-generation jamgrassers Yonder Mountain, and his ace four-man band immediately had that costumed crowd dancing with their trademark mix of hard-driving bluegrass and freewheeling improvisation. What sets the JAB apart from most jamgrass groups isn’t just their no-boundaries soloing, but, like Garcia and the Dead, they bring an ensemble approach to improvisation, taking off in unexpected directions as a full band. Inspired by the cave and the crowd, it made for more than 80 minutes of scary-good, cutting-edge jamgrass.
After our costume contest (thanks to all who participated), The Travelin’ McCourys took the stage. While Austin comes to jamgrass from the rock-inspired improv of the Dead and Garcia’s bluegrass band Old & In the Way (which featured Grisman on mandolin), The Travelin’ McCourys naturally have their roots in Del’s traditional high-lonesome sound. But though they may have started in very different places, they wound up at the same destination.
The Travelin’ McCourys opened with the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues,” followed by the traditional Earl Scruggs banjo tune “Cumberland Gap,” a nice shout-out to Cumberland Caverns. Featuring champion flatpicker Cody Kilby on guitar, the band has all the instrumental chops anyone could wish for, but they also boast three strong lead singers in Ronnie McCoury, fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram, and their harmony trios are as powerful as any in bluegrass. Together, the two bands are a potent force for jamgrass world domination. While Austin’s band brings rock fans and Deadheads to bluegrass, the Travelin’ McCourys have a sound so deeply rooted they can draw even the hardest-core traditional bluegrasser into the jamgrass world.
Just before the evening concert hit the three-hour mark, it was time for the Grateful Ball. Almost 12 hours after people started arriving for the afternoon show, there wasn’t a bit of cave fatigue in The Volcano Room, as both bands combined for a set of Grateful Dead songs. “Friend of the Devil” was a highlight, featuring Austin and McCoury playing the song’s trademark descending melody in beautiful mandolin harmony, but most of the material went beyond the Dead’s more countrified repertoire, including “New Speedway Boogie” and “Brown-Eyed Women.”
They closed the show reaching all the way back to Garcia’s bluegrass band with Grisman, Old & In the Way, with the traditional “Pig in a Pen,” 11 hours after Del & Dawg got things started with that rabbit in a log. It was a fitting close to that very big circle, in a day that blended a rainbow of the many shades of bluegrass, mixing tradition and experimentation in surprising ways through several generations, including a guest spot by Ronnie’s guitar-shredding son Evan.
But I’m not writing this to make you feel bad that you weren’t there. Unlike too many things in life, you’re getting a second chance. For New Years Eve, Bluegrass Underground is going even bigger and “epic-er,” presenting The Underground Countdown, an all-inclusive, multi-day event that runs three days and two nights with The Del McCoury Band, the Travelin’ McCourys, The Jeff Austin Band and possibly surprise musical guests. Dec. 30 features The Bluegrass Ball with the Del McCoury Band performing the greatest songs from throughout the 70-year history of bluegrass, helped by some friends coming to The Volcano Room for the occasion. Dec. 31, at 1 p.m., it’s The Travelin’ McCourys and The Jeff Austin Band doing individual sets for a Bluegrass Underground concert. Then Saturday night, the music moves to the lodge at Fall Creek Falls State Park (where they’re licensed to serve adult beverages). That’s where we’ll hold the Countdown with The Grateful Ball. The catch is that attendance is being limited to just 420 people, and while that assures a more up-close-and-personal concert experience than even our intimate Halloween weekend, there are even fewer tickets available. It’s an all-inclusive package, with lodging at Fall Creek Falls, specially catered gourmet meals with vegetarian options, shuttle service on luxury coaches between Fall Creek Falls and Cumberland Caverns for all events, beer and wine vouchers and a champagne toast at midnight, plus organized yoga classes, hikes, jam sessions and much more.
So if you missed Halloween, you’ve got another shot, the perfect way to start 2017. Meanwhile, we’re working to come up with a word that’s waaaay beyond “epic.” We’ll see you Underground for a very Volcanic New Years Eve. It’s always cooler 333 feet below, but this one’s gonna be molten.
– Larry Nager
Get your tixs before they’re gone here.