Outdoor concerts are back!

Photo: Michael Weintraub

Originally published in the AJC, June 14, 2021

Summer means outdoor concert season is back after taking a hiatus last year due to the pandemic. A few months ago, the thought of hitting the road to see live music was almost unthinkable. Vaccines and altered masking guidelines changed all that in short order. By Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like the floodgates had opened for travel, with concert-going at the top of the list for many. 

It had been well over a year since I had attended a concert, so I headed to the rural South Cumberland area of middle Tennessee where two renowned music venues less than 25 miles apart from one another were beginning their summer concert season — The Caverns and Bonnaroo Farm. The latter in Manchester is home to the internationally famous Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which normally occurs in June but has been moved to Labor Day weekend this year, and also hosts individual concerts on its main stage. The Caverns in nearby Pelham is well-known for staging subterranean concerts in its showcase caverns, and the home of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series “Bluegrass Underground.” 

The underground shows stopped when the pandemic began, but The Caverns adapted by creating an outdoor amphitheater on a hillside next to the cave entrance with spaced-out pod-style seating, staggered entry times, and concessions ordered via app delivered to your pod. Called The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater, it debuted in October 2020 with shows by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Such shows were a rarity during the pre-vaccine times, but the pod concept and other safety measures proved successful. Bonnaroo adopted a similar pod-style setup. Both places still have the pods for the summer shows on their schedules but have also added general admission lawn areas in the back. 

While the two concert venues are alike in that they’re outdoors in the same geographical area, they’re quite different in another respect. Bonnaroo Farm, owned by the entertainment conglomerate Live Nation, operates like any large corporate concert venue would with a sizable staff of security personnel and ushers present from the parking lot to the stage. The Caverns has security and ushers too, of course, but is smaller in size and operates more like a family business. Indeed, owner Todd Mayo was on-site blending in with the staff on the evening I arrived to see Americana act Margo Price perform her first live show since before the pandemic. Mayo was at the entrance greeting patrons as they arrived and even giving small group tours of the grounds, above and below. 

Joining in on a tour before the show, I learned how the amphitheater was carved out of the hillside last fall. “In five weeks we created and built an amphitheater,” said Mayo. “This was all forest, like this,” he said, pointing back to the cave entrance in a densely wooded area next to the clearing that now holds the amphitheater.  It all came about, according to Mayo, when he received a call last August from Jason Isbell’s manager about wanting to do a show outdoors in the fall at The Caverns, which didn’t have space for a big outdoor show. In an inverse “Field of Dreams” moment, Mayo told Isbell’s manager, “If y’all come, we’ll build it.” 

Not only did Mayo and his team build the Above Ground Amphitheater during the height of the pandemic, but they also opened up another section of the caverns to conduct cave tours during the day before the shows in the evening. The Caverns sits at the base of the Cumberland Plateau, tucked into the folds of the mountainside. Travelers looking for other things to do during the day on their music road trip will find some of Tennessee’s most striking scenery on the Cumberland Plateau, especially at South Cumberland State Park. The state park — Tennessee’s largest — has multiple units, with the Savage Gulf State Natural Area 23 miles from The Caverns being the don’t-miss spot for scenic hiking along the rim of the plateau. The easy 2-mile Stone Door hike has multiple rock outcroppings offering long-range mountain views. 

There’s no camping at The Caverns so the best nearest place to stay is atop the plateau in the towns of Monteagle and Sewanee where you’ll find non-chain accommodations at the Sewanee Inn on the grounds of The University of the South and at the family-run Smoke House Lodge and Cabins in Monteagle. The Smoke House recently lost its longtime namesake restaurant to a devastating fire, but the lodge and cabins are still open for business. 
Camping is a huge part of the Bonnaroo festival experience but not allowed for individual shows. Plenty of chain hotels are located at Manchester’s two interstate exits near the farm. 

Arriving at Bonnaroo the night after the Margo Price show, everything was bigger, from the stage to the field, and the lines to get in. Mainstream country star Jon Pardi was the headliner, with up-and-coming singer and songwriter Jameson Rodgers opening. The weather was unseasonably cool and, like the Margo Price show the night before, saw intermittent rain showers. It served as a reminder of the downside of outdoor concerts: sudden changes in the weather. Don’t forget to pack a poncho. Umbrellas are a no-no due to line-of-sight issues for those behind you in the crowd. 

The Caverns will resume its underground shows on July 24 with Todd Snider performing. Bring a light jacket or some layered clothing for any cave show since the temperature inside the underground concert hall hovers around 59 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. You can probably leave the light jacket behind when the Avett Brothers do a three-night stand at Bonnaroo Farm over the Fourth of July weekend. 

One thing that became evident over Memorial Day weekend was that the artists are just as excited to be back as the fans. Rodgers informed the crowd that it was his first time performing his single “Some Girls” live since it had become a number one hit on the country charts during the pandemic. At the end of her show at The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater, Margo Price stepped off the stage and handed out roses to the crowd, a gesture that showed how grateful she was to be playing in front of a live audience again after a long year away from the concert stage. 

If you go 

The Caverns. Concerts $34.50 and up. 555 Charlie Roberts Rd. 
Pelham. 931-516-9724, www.thecaverns.com

Bonnaroo Farm. Concerts $35 and up.  1560 New Bushy Branch, Manchester. 512-674-9300, www.bonnaroofarm.com/

Stay 

Sewanee Inn. $199 and up. 1235 University Ave., Sewanee. 931-598-3568, sewanee-inn.com

The Smokehouse Lodge and Cabins. Rooms $70 and up, cabins $160 and up. 844 W. Main St., Monteagle. 800-489-2091, thesmokehouse.com

Eat 

Common John Brewing Company. Manchester’s only craft brewery serves flatbread pizzas, sandwiches, and snacks. $5.99 and up. 210 Woodbury Hwy., Manchester. 931-954-5387, www.commonjohnbc.com

Shenanigans. Popular hangout for students and music fans featuring live music and serving pizzas, sandwiches and salads. $6.95 and up. 12595 Sollace M. Freeman Hwy., Sewanee. 931-598-5774, www.shenanigans1974.com

Visitor info 

Experience Tennessee Welcome Center in Manchester. 110 E. Main St. 931-728-7635, www.experiencetn.com.

Blake Guthrie

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