It was indeed, epic. Bluegrass Underground’s “Underground Countdown” was a moveable three-day fest, ferrying 420 adventurous music-lovers between Fall Creek Falls State Park and The Volcano Room at Cumberland Caverns, ushering out 2016 and welcoming 2017 with eight sets of music, hours of jamming and one heck of a marathon party.
Now, we’ve been at this a while – we’ll celebrate Bluegrass Underground’s 9th Anniversary this August. We’ve done massive shows in the Volcano Room with icons like The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Widespread Panic, as well as younger headliners like Edwin Sharpe. We’ve done six seasons for PBS and will tape BGU VII on the last weekend of March (watch this space for a list of performers and the sale date.
Even so, from a sheer event perspective, this was the biggest underground undertaking to date. BGU Founder Todd Mayo’s dream was to expand the BGU experience into a three-day music marathon, an all-inclusive NYE celebration for just 420 folks, a pretty intimate crowd considering a BGU sell-out is more than 700.
And it happened. People came from as far away as San Francisco and eastern Maryland. Many were DelFest loyalists who brought instruments for jamming in the lobby and lodge rooms, giving the weekend even more of a festival feel.
Folks arrived throughout Friday, settling in, having dinner and then boarding motor coaches to the cave for the first concert, an evening show by The Jeff Austin Band, the Traveling McCourys and a third combined set of The Bluegrass Ball. Both bands are repeat BGU headliners, most recently for their instantly sold-out Grateful Ball event, which played Halloween weekend a few months back. The McCourys have become BGU regulars and Austin first came to the cave with Yonder Mt. String Band for a PBS taping. BGU is always better with artists who “get” the whole cave experience and Austin, a musical explorer in the Grateful Dead tradition, is one of The Volcano Room’s biggest fans. He and his band – banjoist Kyle Tuttle, guitarist Ross Martin and bassist Max Johnson (whose bowed solos repeatedly stole the show) bonded with the bedrock and fueled by the energy the crowd brought, their opening set lit the fuse for a weekend of musical fireworks.
Austin’s freewheeling jamgrass was a great contrast with the Travelin’ McCourys. The Travelin McCoury’s are The Del McCoury Band – sons Ronnie and Robbie on mandolin and banjo, respectively, fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Allan Bartram – with flatpicking master Cody Kilby on guitar. They have a different name, sound and musical philosophy, both electric and electrifying, expanding solos into lengthy improvs and bringing in material even the adventuresome Del might bypass. But they do it all with the drive and soul of traditional bluegrass, retaining enough Bill Monroe DNA to keep even hardest-core bluegrassers satisfied.
The two groups make a great team, similar enough to create that high-energy, downhome bluegrass vibe, but with enough differences to maintain freshness through a nearly three-hour concert. It also made for a great combined band when they joined forces Friday to close the night with The Bluegrass Ball, a tribute to the music’s roots and branches.
With midnight approaching, New Year’s Eve Eve drew to a close, and the crowd loaded the buses and headed for Fall Creek Falls – no parking lot gridlock, no DUI stops, no GPS fails, everything running even more smoothly than anticipated. It wasn’t long before the lobby at Fall Creek Falls was in full after-party mode, as the bar got busy and fans turned performers to jam into the wee hours.
Saturday, NYE started early, with breakfast and a 9:45 bus to Cumberland Caverns for cave tours, included in the package. Some took advantage of their early arrival to finish their tour in the Volcano Room, grabbing seats and getting a little extra music in the soundchecks.
New Year’s is always a time to reflect on the past year and the past in general. In that Del picked the perfect song for his Saturday morning soundcheck, singing the bluegrass standard, “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.” It’s a soundcheck-only song for Del and the band, but for him, it goes all the way back – Track 1, Side 1 of his 1968 debut LP, Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass.
Backstage, musicians visited, and it really was more like family than show business, a big reason people are drawn to bluegrass and its boundary-less community of musicians and fans. Austin chatted with Jean McCoury, Del’s wife and Robbie and Ron’s mom, telling her about his growing family and their move from Colorado to Chicago. It seemed an extension of those recent holiday dinners, but with no crazy uncles.
That informal feeling continued onstage, where, in the middle of his set, Del stopped to take requests, even for deep catalog like “Eli Renfro.”
With “The Voice” of traditional bluegrass at centerstage, the contrast with Austin’s jamgrass was even more in evidence. Austin’s set ranged from loose-limbed bluegrass, inspired by Jerry Garcia’s Old & In the Way as well as Yonder Mt., while Del and the boys tore up classics like “Rawhide” and “Bluegrass Breakdown” and McCoury standards like “Hard on My Heart” and his reinvention of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
Then it was back to Fall Creek Falls to recharge for the big night.
New Year’s Eve was a rare manifestation of BGU in the surface world, moving the stage to Fall Creek Falls Lodge. After a holiday prime-rib dinner, everyone got festive for the evening. There was plenty of tie-dye, some retro hipsters in continental sportcoats and cocktail dresses and I wasn’t the only one wearing a tux. While the dresscode was as eclectic as the music, everyone was there for a party. NYE was The Grateful Ball – a full set of The Jeff Austin Band, a full set of Travelin’ McCourys, the latter including the 2017 Countdown and, as federal law dictates, a champagne toast and “Auld Lang Syne.”
Then it was time for BGU’s first official performance of 2017, two world-class bands playing bluegrass versions of the ageless songs of The Grateful Dead until nearly 3 a.m. These guys came to play and they had to be almost physically removed from the stage.
Although most of those in attendance didn’t know it, the band playing in the lobby before the main show was Travis Stinson and The Volunteer String Band, the first group ever to play Bluegrass Underground. Just to ensure the whole thing worked, they test drove The Volcano Room in 2008, a couple weeks before the first official BGU with The SteelDrivers featuring Chris Stapleton.
And while we talk about the great acoustics and literally awesome beauty of the Volcano Room and the production magic of Emmy-winning soundman Andy Kern and Emmy-worthy lighting guy Brian Sullivan and, of course, legendary performers like Bluegrass Hall of Famer Del McCoury and his award-laden band, I’ve got to say the secret of BGU’s success is you. What makes this place so special is the people who make the journey to this remote spot in McMinnville, Tenn., to hike through the woods into a cave, 333 feet down to the Volcano Room.
For the BGU crew, that’s what puts the “grateful” in Grateful Ball. Thank you and Happy New Year. We’ve got plenty more reasons for you to make the journey in 2017. To paraphrase the Dead, at Bluegrass Underground, the music never stops.
Jerry Garcia and Michael Cleveland
Which brings us to Jan. 21, the opening concert of our 2017 season. In my years writing about music for daily papers, I got to interview Jerry Garcia only once. The Dead was returning to Cincinnati the summer of 1985 for its first concert there in almost 20 years. I wrote for the Post, an afternoon paper, and they’d promised the morning paper (larger circulation, a Sunday edition) an interview with Jerry. But when I spoke to the band’s longtime publicist Dennis McNally and mentioned I knew Jerry’s banjo mentor Sandy Rothman from the Columbus, Oh., bluegrass scene, McNally immediately said, “You know Sandy? Forget the other paper, Jerry’s talking to you.” That sense of family wasn’t just the Dead’s public image. I knew someone close to Jerry, so I got the interview.
But then, what do you ask Jerry Garcia, who has done thousands of interviews? And it was a “phoner”, making it even harder to really connect. So I stuck to what had first connected us, bluegrass. Jerry was engaged and in the moment, one of the best interviews/conversations i had as a journalist.
Among other things, we talked about his influences and where the psychedelic aspect of the Dead’s music came from, not pharmaceutically, but musically. He cited the great fiddle player Scotty Stoneman, son of Ernest Stoneman, who recorded at the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions. Jerry said that, to him, the younger Stoneman’s fiddle was every bit as psychedelic as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. Another great fiddler, Vassar Clements, was part of Jerry’s bluegrass band, Old & In the Way. Jerry loved great fiddling, the wilder the better.
Which brings us to our first official Volcano Room show of 2017. Jan. 21, we have Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, and I’m sure Jerry would have approved. Cleveland’s combination of blazing improvisation and deep bluegrass feel has won him IBMA Fiddler of the Year honors nine times. I first saw him as a tiny kid, jamming with Bill Keith (another of Jerry’s old bluegrass pals, BTW). Wildly sawing at his fiddle, Cleveland had a look of absolutely purest joy. I’ve seen him play many times since and he still has that same look. His latest CD is Fiddler’s Dream and Michael Cleveland is definitely living it. Jan. 21, you can live it too. Billy Strings opens the 1 p.m. show and we still have tickets available. Late January is a great time to come to the cave. Tours are less crowded and this time of year, the 57-degree Volcano Room feels downright balmy.
We’ll see you Underground in 2017.
– Larry Nager