For many in the bluegrass community, their first introduction to Wyatt Ellis was when he stepped onto the stage at the IBMA Awards Show in October 2022. Wyatt stood out for two reasons. For one, he can play the mandolin with the best of them. And he was much shorter than the musical giants he shared the stage with. Not that Wyatt couldn’t hold his own among them. But at 13 years old, he was by far the youngest person on stage playing with the legendary Peter Rowan and GRAMMY winner Molly Tuttle.
“It was really cool,” he says. “And probably the most special performance I’ve ever done.”
Wyatt got the IBMA gig through Chris Henry, Rowan’s regular mandolin player, who happens to be one of Wyatt’s main mandolin teachers. “Chris couldn’t be at IBMA because he was booked at a music camp, so he asked me to fill in for him.” Chris felt that Wyatt could play closest to the Bill Monroe style. For Wyatt, it was a surreal moment. “I was on stage with many of my musical heroes. Surprisingly, I wasn’t too nervous. Everybody was so supportive and nice to me.”
Catching up with Wyatt just as he was getting settled into his hotel room in New York City, he said, “I’m here for the Chris Thile camp. I’ll do that for a week.” It was Wyatt’s second trip to the Big Apple. “I came another time when I was really little – about five years old, so I don’t remember a whole lot.”
The mandolin phenom lives in Maryville, Tennessee, about twenty miles from Knoxville. As a young child, Wyatt heard the song “Rocky Top” with Bobby Osborne playing mandolin. “I grew up listening to that song at University of Tennessee games, and because of Bobby’s solo on the song, I wanted to learn how to play the mandolin.”
Like most boys, Wyatt had a full schedule with school, Boy Scouts, and team sports. Finding time to play an instrument wasn’t easy. But when he was ten years old, Wyatt convinced his dad to buy him a used mandolin so he could learn to play.
“I wanted to play like Bobby.” Wyatt took weekly mandolin lessons and was soon attending local bluegrass jams. “We aren’t musical at all,” says Wyatt’s mom, Teresa Ellis. “But he was insistent on jumping in to play with other local musicians, so his dad and I drove him where he wanted to go.”
When COVID put a halt to most activities outside the home, Wyatt spent hours watching YouTube videos and practicing playing the mandolin. Many mandolin players started teaching online, and the community of mandolin players became even stronger via the internet. One of Wyatt’s mandolin heroes, Sierra Hull, understood Wyatt in a way few could. Hull was a mandolin prodigy, and she chose Wyatt to receive the Tennessee Folklife apprenticeship. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I worked on exactly what I needed to work on at the time – details,” says Wyatt. “Sierra has taken bluegrass to another dimension, and I was excited to start my journey with her.”
Another of Wyatt’s mandolin-playing heroes is Marty Stuart, who has been working for the past few years to open the Congress of Country Music in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. When Stuart opened the Ellis Theatre in Philadelphia, Wyatt Ellis was on hand for the grand re-opening of the historic venue. “I did a solo show in a tent in front of the theatre for three nights,” says Wyatt. He opened for such seasoned performers as Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill and the Gaithers. “I played a lot of old Bill Monroe tunes, as well as some of my own music.” A real Bill Monroe fan, Wyatt discovered a series of three Hatch show prints from the 1940s, which he has on loan to Stuart’s museum.
With a love of the history of music as much as the music itself, Wyatt incorporated that history into his new single, “Grassy Cove,” recently released on his own label, Knee High Records. The name of the record company comes from a line in the song “Nashville Cats” that says, “Yeah, I was just thirteen, you might say I was a musical proverbial knee-high.” The song was produced by Justin Moses, a talented multi-instrumentalist and Sierra Hull’s husband.
Not limited to the mandolin, Wyatt is also accomplished on the guitar, fiddle, banjo and vocals. But there is no doubt that Wyatt is destined to become the next breakout mandolin player. He has come full circle already, working with his musical idol, Bobby Osborne, in a one-on-one workshop via Skype through Scott Napier and the Kentucky School of Bluegrass. Something Wyatt is proud of is that CJ Lewandowski of The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys invited him to be on what would turn out to be Bobby’s final project.” Wyatt now owns Bobby’s mandolin. “I treasure it, knowing I have a piece of bluegrass history.”