The Caverns Wins G&G’s Favorite Southern Music Venue Bracket
Among 32 beloved venues, a subterranean marvel in Tennessee takes the title
Three weeks ago, we launched our eleventh-annual Garden & Gun bracket: Favorite Southern Music Venues, in partnership with Dos Primos Tequila, featuring thirty-two stellar live music spots around the region. Some were storied institutions, others newer and growing, and all are coming back strong after a difficult two years. That’s something to celebrate in itself. But today, after five rounds of voting, we have a winner: The Caverns, in Pelham, Tennessee.
The championship matchup, against Asheville, North Carolina’s the Orange Peel, was a tight race until the end, with the Caverns earning 53 percent of the vote. “Going into a cave is timeless, and listening to music there is a surreal experience that I never tire of,” says Todd Mayo. In 2008, Mayo founded Bluegrass Underground, an Emmy-winning PBS series that played subterranean host to the likes of Jason Isbell, Widespread Panic, and Robert Earl Keen in a cave in Tennessee’s Cumberland Caverns. He opened the Caverns’ current location at the base of Monteagle Mountain in 2018 as a permanent home for the show and a year-round underground venue, with room for 1,200 people, ethereal lighting, and a unique sound. “It’s unlike any other room,” he says. “When performers and fans all enter a cave together, the fourth wall is broken.”
Photo: Kat Brown
During the pandemic, when the cavern itself was closed, Mayo added an outdoor, above-ground amphitheater and a campsite that can host visitors overnight. But the underground room is now back in business. “People want to hear their favorite band play in a magical cave,” he says. And clearly, from the thousands of loyal voters, they don’t forget their visit. “We mobilized the forces when we saw we were in the bracket, and it’s so wonderful that our fans and patrons took the time to vote for us.” A video Mayo posted on social media likely helped—last week, he donned a Batman suit and shot baskets in the cave. “You don’t come up with the idea to turn a wild cave into a music venue without having a fair amount of crazy in you, so jumping in a Batman suit was just another day on the job for me,” he reports with a laugh.
“From us to Tipitina’s to the Ryman to Preservation Hall, all music venues are destinations,” Mayo says. That also includes the bracket’s worthy runner-up, the Orange Peel. Opened as a roller-skate rink in 1950 (it still has the same wooden floors), the building later served as a bowling alley and then a funk and soul club before becoming the Orange Peel we know today in 2002. Since then, it has hosted acts including Bob Dylan, Post Malone, Amythyst Kiah, the Avett Brothers, and a nine-show reunion residency of the Smashing Pumpkins. The 1,100 person standing room is shaped like a square, giving everyone a great view. “You are never far from the stage,” says Liz Tallent, one of the operating managers. “No matter where you’re standing, it feels so intimate, and with everyone on their feet, the energy is contagious.” Adds Tallent’s colleague Jeff Santiago: “The fans feel like they are engulfed in light and sound and are inside the show with the artists.”
Now that these venues are getting back in the groove, the Orange Peel is looking forward to upcoming shows by Girl Talk and Leon Bridges, and the Caverns will be hosting Todd Snider, Steve Earle, Drive-By Truckers, and more this summer. “It’s so exciting to host these artists that we love again,” Santiago says, “and to welcome back the fans.”
Thank you to all who voted in the bracket—and to the music venues that have welcomed artists and fans throughout the years. As Mayo says, “Every one of the places in this bracket is a place to visit. And we are so happy to have a light shining on all the great music venues of the South.”
Illustration by Marco Goran Romano