Caverns Cave Tours: History, Geology, Myth, Magic
by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
Many cultures have creation and enlightenment stories associated with caves. “I was born again inside a cave,” said Todd Mayo. “My life changed forever.” Mayo owns the world-famous Pelham music venue The Caverns, located in Big Mouth Cave. He told his story leading a tour of his latest underground undertaking, the opening of the breathtaking neighboring cave, Big Room. Formerly accessible only to experienced cavers via a rappel, visitors can now walk into the vast, enchanting underground chamber backpacking a toddler if they choose. Creating a second entrance to Big Room took ingenuity, caution, and Mayo’s mission driven determination.
Big Room Cave is three football fields long. Mayo told the cave’s 500-million-year-old story with doting father enthusiasm, explaining how Tennessee was once under water. Marine creature skeletons turned into limestone. After the sea receded, rain water (which is naturally acidic) tunneled underground and eroded the limestone. Caves formed. Mayo pointed out sea creature fossils, the ceiling scalloped from rushing underground water, and the cave in the act of creating itself as limestone rich water dripped from the ceiling to form majestic stalactites and stalagmites. Deep in the chamber, Mayo turned out all the lights, inviting his visitors to experience total darkness, a phenomenon that occurs only in the deep belly of caves and the sea.
In 2008, Mayo had never been in a cave and had no affiliation with the music industry. He visited Cumberland Caverns and awed by the mysterious beauty and vastness, an idea sparked in Mayo’s mind: the cave as music venue. Bluegrass Underground was born. But Cumberland Caverns only accommodated 600 listeners. Mayo went scouting for a larger cave. The opening to Big Mouth Cave boasts the largest span of any commercial cave in the nation and can hold a standing room crowd of 1,200. Also intriguing to Mayo when he first visited the property was the other cave, Big Room. From the beginning, making Big Room accessible to the public was part of Mayo’s vision.
With the help of geologists, engineers, a hydrologist to manage the water and a biologist to ensure no harm came to cave critters like salamanders, Big Mouth began hosting Bluegrass Underground in 2018. In November of 2019, Mayo set to the task of creating a walkable entrance to Big Room. The process began with GPS location of the underground chamber. Then the heavy equipment came in and started hauling away dirt and rock from the hillside below the rappel entrance. The work became increasingly slow and cautious. A large limestone pillar at the entrance testifies to the special care excavators took not to damage formations.
The Caverns offers cave tours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., cost $22.95 for adults and $12.95 for children 12 and under. The adventurous can visit the deepest recesses of the cave via a belly crawl through a low narrow passage that leads to beautifully decorated chambers and an underground stream. The adventure tour is limited to cave-enthusiasts 16 years and up and advance booking is required, cost $130.
The Caverns music venue is closed until the pandemic recedes. For cave tours, CDC guidelines are followed with groups limited to 10 or smaller. Restroom and gift shop facilities are regularly sanitized.
Ending the tour at Big Mouth, the music venue cave, Mayo talked about how the Cherokee believed it was home to “little people” who bestowed the gift of musical talent on visitors. Interestingly, performing at The Caverns tops many music artists’ bucket list. There is a unique energy to the place. The Caverns cave tours is a lesson in history, geology and myth with a sideline bonus of experiencing magic first hand.