At only 14 years old, East Tennessee-based Wyatt Ellis is making waves in the bluegrass community. Having recently made his Grand Ole Opry debut and having worked with mandolin mentors like Sierra Hull and the late Bobby Osborne, the teen is now putting out his own original music and is constantly writing new tunes — sometimes as many as three a day.
During a phone interview with BGS, Ellis explained that he took virtual lessons with Osborne for two years — chuckling when mentioning Osborne’s background green screen and the iconic hat and hatband he kept on even while teaching. On Osborne’s last birthday, he taught Ellis his exact “Rocky Top” solo.
When he’s not outside fishing or playing sports, Wyatt Ellis plans to build on the support and encouragement from his heroes by continuing to release more original music. He has more than one exciting collaboration coming out later this year with icons of bluegrass, but is pretty satisfied now with the fact that his single “Grassy Cove,” a co-write with Hull, hit the bluegrass charts and was covered in national outlets like Billboard.
Let’s take it from the top. When did you start playing mandolin, and why?
Wyatt Ellis: I started playing when I was ten years old. I had heard “Rocky Top” living in the Knoxville area — Bobby Osborne playing the mandolin, singing that high tenor. That made me want to get a mandolin. A little while after that I heard Bill Monroe. That’s when I really got into it.
Would you say your career started out on social media?
WE: During the pandemic, everything was shut down. It really slowed me down going to festivals. But on social media, I was able to connect with so many people through Skype and Instagram. [I got a lot of] encouragement from some of my heroes on Instagram.
Do you have a musical family?
WE: I’m the only one.
How has your career changed over the last few years? You’ve been leveling up — talk about how you made that happen.
WE: The pandemic allowed so many more people to connect online, and that really helped me a lot. I had a lot of time to put in a lot of hard work during that. Just making connections online and some people started teaching, and that helped me when I was starting to really get into it
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Which instruments do you play and how much do you practice?
WE: I play the mandolin, the guitar, the fiddle — and I started on piano. That laid a foundation for everything else. I wasn’t super serious, but I was serious enough to learn the basics of music. I play a lot when I want to, probably two or three hours a day, and I just enjoy it. I do it as much as I enjoy it.
How do you balance all this with school?
WE: I’m homeschooled, so it’s pretty easy to be able to go to festivals and still be completely doing school.
Talk about working with Sierra Hull — how did that mentorship come to be?
WE: So, I had met Sierra briefly after a concert. She was going to do an apprenticeship through the Tennessee Folk Like program, and she was looking for a child to mentor. I was chosen for that. I got to know Sierra, and we wrote a tune and it’s out now. It was really special. This is my first single in general. We co-wrote that one. I came up with a little bit of the tune, started the chords and melody, and she helped me add a few parts and finish it up.
Can you talk about another single “Get Lost?” What was the big surprise with Michael Cleveland?
WE: Justin Moses, who produced it, he coordinated everything for Michael to be there and play on the track. I was sitting in the control room and Justin walks in and says, “Your fiddle player’s here.” I wondered who — I was confused. I walked out and saw Michael. We jammed a little bit, played some mandolin tunes.
What was it like being on the Opry for the first time?
WE: When I got the message from Darrin Vincent, it was just through Instagram. I saw it and I was shocked. I was on a Zoom [call] with Bobby Osborne when I got the message. I told him, and he says, “[You] wouldn’t want to pass that up.” I had never had much contact with them before that; they’d just seen my videos. It was pretty cool, and it was even cooler that [we played] “Rawhide.” The second night, I went out and you have to play when the curtain rises. It’s really special and I don’t even know how I was ready for that one.
What are your biggest musical goals?
WE: I would have to say to keep writing music and creating new stuff.
Photo Credit: Shawn Poynter