Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Shane Wade is the manager and part-owner of the Shawnee Cave Amphitheater in Murphysboro, Illinois. A music festival called Weekend at the Cave kicks off there in June. 

Enjoy our conversation about the magic of bluegrass, the value of intimacy at a festival, and rebuilding the reputation of a local party spot, below. 

A show at the Shawnee Cave Amphitheater. (Photo provided)

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Okay, I want to start with the basics. What is your relationship to the area where the festival is?

Shane Wade: I grew up there. I grew up in Southern Illinois and live in Marion now. I attended high school in Carterville and grew up in Herrin. Actually, the cave itself had many different faces over the years and when I was in junior high it was open to the public to visit by paddle boat. So that was probably my first experience with the cave.

DY: Can you describe the cave itself in more detail?

SW: The cave obviously has been there for millions of years. It’s been said that Native Americans used it as a shelter for thousands of years. It was originally called Saltpeter Cave. There’s theories that it was used for mined saltpeter which was used to make black powder during the Civil War. And then in the late 1960s, a man from Murphysboro actually created a music venue there. Throughout the 60s and the 70s and the 80s some huge acts played there. Head East, Muddy Waters. Tanya Tucker played there when she was 15.

A news clip from when Tanya Tucker played at the Shawnee Cave in 1976. (Photo provided)

And then in the 2000s, it became an underground EDM scene, which to be honest with you kind of got out of hand with some of the partying that the kids down there from the college did. By probably 2008 or 2009 it shut down. My partner acquired it in 2012 or 2013 and then we just let it sit for a while, let the smoke clear from some of the stuff that happened there at the end. The city leaders had a bad taste in their mouths from that. And when Covid happened, it was kind of the perfect storm. We had been talking about doing something down there for a long time and then in the pandemic we just went full steam ahead on construction. We invested a lot of time and money in infrastructure and created a really wonderful space for people to come enjoy different music festivals.

DY: What did that include? If people haven’t been there, it’s fully nature surrounding the property. So what kind of work needed to be done to get up and running?

SW: So it sits on 70 acres abutting the Shawnee National Forest. The stage area is a natural rock bluff, which has a bit of a natural overhang. It’s called the Shawnee Cave Amphitheater but it’s not quite a cave where you can enter any dark or enclosed space, it’s more of a natural rock bluff. What we did was was beef up the drain system because it had been sitting for so long with water runoff and it was just really in bad shape. We put a lot of substructure under the ground to get the water away from the venue area. We poured a lot of concrete just so that the tour trailers could get around. And we did a lot of other work on the space in 2020. But the whole area is surrounded by National Forest. It’s right in the middle of nature. You can see lots of hiking and trails and lakes. If you’ve been to the Shawnee forest before, we’re less than a mile from Natural Bridge.

Shane Wade and his business partner worked throughout the pandemic to revive this natural performance venue. (Photo provided)

DY: What’s the relationship between that piece of property and the town of Murphysboro been like over the years? You mentioned that when you were a kid you would go over on paddle boats and stuff. But I’m curious about whether it’s been a big part of public life in different moments. 

SW: You know, I think so. During my time down there so many people have stopped me to say, “I got married down here,” or, “My husband proposed and down here,” or “I came down here when I was a senior in high school.” I think there’s a very strong relationship with the locals, not just in Murphysboro but Carbondale too. And I get a lot of people that are in from Chicago, California, Colorado and other parts of the country that went to Southern Illinois University (SIU) and while they were at SIU they’d attended events down here. So it’s always been kind of a gathering place. 

DY: Aside from just the business perspective, what’s your goal for the place in the long term, maybe in terms of what you hope to offer to the community?

SW: Our goal is to have a destination space in Southern Illinois, something that’s not just for the local community, but for people in other markets so that they can come down and they can experience nature, they can experience the vibe of a music festival in an intimate environment. We’re not going to be like Bonnaroo or Electric Forest or some of these bigger events where you have 15 or 20 thousand people and, for lack of a better phrase, it’s like herding cattle. There’s really no intimacy. You know, my events are less than three thousand people. There might be a day where I go to five thousand but to be honest with you, I like it at three. I just don’t want the problems that come with more than that. And I think the experience that our customer gets at three is worth it. There’s not a bad seat in the house. It’s just an altogether better experience. During the day attendees can go hike trails, they can go down to Cedar Lake which is two miles away and paddle board or canoe. Whatever their tastes, they can get outside and enjoy the outdoors. And I’ve noticed people seeing what this area has to offer. During Covid I would look at Airbnb every weekend just to see what was up and every weekend that whole area down there was just booked up. And you saw a lot of people that are local that come to enjoy it, but there’s also a lot of people from Chicago, from Nashville, from St. Louis who come down to get away from the city, get away from the noise and hang out where their phones don’t work. Peace and quiet.

DY: A couple summers ago I worked at a bait shop and bar that my family owns near Lake of Egypt and it was such a strange experience to meet people from Chicago coming to Southern Illinois as tourists. Even though I totally understood why they’d want to be down here on the lakes and in the woods in the summer, it felt backwards.

SW: Yeah, I mean, they can come down here and they can disconnect. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a music festival. But you know, there’s a feeling of community at our events. We have a tremendous amount of people that want to volunteer and really be a part of it. And a lot of those people aren’t from southern Illinois. We’ve got ticket buyers from 30 states, from all over the country, California to Maine.

DY: Can you tell me a little more about the music? What kind of niche are you guys going for?

SW: It’s kind of a hippy crowd, a lot of jam bands. There’s a little bit of electronic but not too much, and then we got Greensky Bluegrass as our headliner. We’ve got this jam band called Twiddle in their last year of touring. We have a local guy by the name of Jeremy Todd who’s from Benton, who’s just superb. I saw him at a winery and thought “You know what, that guy’s got to be on the big stage.” So he’s gonna open the show on Saturday. And then we have the Steeldrivers, who a lot of people know as Chris Stapleton’s band when he first started, before he went solo. And then we have Sam Bush, who is a bluegrass legend. We had him at the first event and people loved it. It brings a lot of the older bluegrass fans. And then closing our show is a group called Elephant Revival. They sold out Red Rocks, like eight years ago, and haven’t really toured since. They played some small shows last year, sold out Mission Ballroom in Colorado in February, and they’re back touring now. We’re going to be their first stop in the Midwest. And then we’ll have a lot of local acts on our daytime stage. 

DY: Is this the kind of music that you like? How’d you figure out what kinds of acts were a good fit? 

SW: I didn’t know the first thing about it until the summer of 2020. The first year that we did this I was figuring all this out and somebody said “You’ve gotta get Billy Strings here,” so I listened to Billy Strings and I was like “Wow, I gotta get Billy Strings here.” That’s kind of when I got interested in the genre. I’m probably more of a country guy at heart. I like going to a concert that’s almost like a rock show. You know, fast paced, high speed, high energy. This is nothing like that, but it captivates the audience. I went to Greensky’s show in January at The Pageant, it was so laid back my son was bored out of his mind because he just doesn’t get it. But when I go to a show I’m looking at much more than the people on stage.

I’m looking from a business sense and these bluegrass jam bands have so much engagement from the fans. And they really attract a good crowd.  I mean, there’s always an exception but I will never forget my first event. We leased a field for offsite parking from a nice local family and on Monday morning, I hadn’t been to the site yet because I’d been so busy. I dreaded going over all morning because I just knew that it was gonna be full of trash. We’d had a few thousand people there over the weekend. So I just knew it was a wreck. But I got there and I swear there was not one piece of trash.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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