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  • Down in the HoleOutlaw Country and Outlaw Culture
  • Max Fraser (bio)

And loud they sang, and long they sang,  For they sang to wake the dead.

—Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

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All images by Carmen J. Price.

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The earliest documented exploration of a deep cave in eastern North America occurred roughly five thousand years ago, in the limestone-rich hills of the Upper Cumberland Plateau along what is now the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. Carrying torches lit with charcoal made from river cane, one or two small groups of hunter-gatherers entered a cave mouth in present-day Fentress County, Tennessee, and ventured thousands of feet into the pitch-black interior, traversing complicated passageways to which later speleologists would give impassable-sounding names like “Only Crawl” and “Towering Inferno.” Charcoal remnants amenable to radiocarbon dating, and, rather more poignantly, some 274 footprints, preserved in the moist clay of the cave floor for thousands of years, have allowed researchers to reconstruct the movements of these ancient cavers—although not, precisely, their motivations for entering the inner recesses of the cave in the first place. In one instance, a set of prints was found along the edge of a pit, where one or more cavers seems to have stood while contemplating the abyss; in another, a lone explorer appears to deviate to examine a striking geological feature in part of the cave’s main passageway, before returning to the group. As one paper published in the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies concluded, the dispersal of the footprints suggests no particular purpose or activity inside the cave, beyond “ambling and searching.”1

It is a felicitous construction. Here, we’ll search out the ways caves have been put to use in southern life and culture and also amble after their more figurative dimensions, as underground or outlaw spaces beyond the pale of good society. Ambling and searching, moreover, brings to mind more than a few country music lyrics, and it is in the realm of country music—particularly the so-called “outlaw country” movement of the 1970s—where the literal and the figurative overlap most evocatively. Country music has always stood in conflicted relationship to a bourgeois culture that has often viewed the music and its practitioners with some considerable reproach; country music has often stood, as it were, with one foot in and one foot out of the cave. The perils and possibilities of that position were rarely clearer than during the outlaw movement of the 1970s. But to make sense of it all, we must start from the bottom.

When archeologists first came across the Fentress County cave in 1976, they encountered, along with the charcoal traces and the footprints, the skeletal remains of several extinct species of mammals—some of which were as much as thirty-five thousand years old—as well as the bones of at least two adult jaguars. The latter led to the cave becoming known, in places like the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, as “Jaguar Cave”—although among locals in Fentress County it had long gone by the name “Blowing Cave,” in acknowledgement and appreciation of the cool air that would blow forth from the cave mouth at every time of year. “I’ve seen times when the trees in front of the cave would be white with frost and everything else [End Page 84] around there green and normal looking,” remarked Jim Williams, the man on whose property Blowing Cave then lay, when a stringer from the Associated Press questioned him about the prehistoric discovery in his backyard. “People used to come up here just to sit in front of the cave in summer.”2

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As it happens, there are as many as seven thousand caves in Tennessee, enough to make it the most cavernous state in the country and to ensure that, as had been the case with Blowing Cave, caves have long served a variety of functions in the daily lives of local inhabitants. Later groups of Woodland Indians mined caves for flint to make stone tools or...