Music

Prodigy Wyatt Ellis and His Mandolin Are Causing a Stir in Bluegrass


Wyatt Ellis is only 15, but the mandolin prodigy is making quite a splash on the bluegrass world and appearing alongside some pillars of the genre — Bobby Osborne, Sierra Hull, Sam Bush, Marty Stuart, Ronnie McCoury, among them.

“The bluegrass community has always been welcoming to young and upcoming musicians,” Ellis tells Rolling Stone. “And that’s a huge part of my story and how I got into the music.”

The common denominator with all those names listed is that they’re each phenomenal mandolin players — icons of the genre. Ellis has started to work his way up those ranks as a young musician, even though he only picked up the instrument a little more than four years ago, at age 10.

“I love how creative you can be with it,” Ellis says of the mandolin. “You have just about everything you could wish for, but it’s still got drive and power.”

First learning piano at 6, Ellis soon picked up guitar and fiddle. But it was during the 2020 shutdown where he was handed a mandolin. Living in rural East Tennessee, Ellis needed something to occupy his time when he couldn’t go to school. He started fiddling around with the instrument and went down a YouTube rabbit hole, eventually tracking down old clips of the Osborne Brothers.

“I first heard [the mandolin] in the hands of Bobby Osborne,” Ellis says. “And that ‘high, lonesome sound’ just drew me in.”

Releasing his debut album Happy Valley this past February, Ellis’ latest single, “Blue Smoke,” finds the youngster teaming up with Marty Stuart, a musical giant in bluegrass, country, and Americana circles who also got his start in the industry at a very young age.

“I actually wrote ‘Blue Smoke’ for Marty to play on,” Ellis says. “I reached out [to him] and he agreed — the rest is history.”

“There’s a lot of great players and singers in bluegrass that need good new songs to perform to keep the genre fresh and moving forward,” Stuart says. “Wyatt has the goods to help bring that about.”

The new video for “Blue Smoke” documents a recent three-date run where Ellis opened for Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. “It was my first big road trip in a bus,” Ellis says. “The whole experience was eye-opening to what being a musician is really like. It was awesome.”

With Stuart looking on from the wings of the stage, one can symbolically appreciate the video, especially the references to Osborne and the “Father of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe. “I admire Wyatt for writing new songs for the bluegrass canon,” Stuart says. “His writing could set him apart from the pack.”

The nod to Osborne is especially poignant, seeing as Ellis got to work with the mandolin virtuoso before he died last year at 91. Through the Kentucky School of Bluegrass & Traditional Music, Ellis had a two-year apprenticeship where he learned firsthand all he could from Osborne.

That friendship with Osborne parlayed itself into an ongoing mentor/mentee relationship with C.J. Lewandowski, mandolinist for the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, a fast-paced bluegrass act that’s been causing its own vibrant ripples in the industry as of late.

“He’s hotter than a firecracker right now,” Lewandowski says of Ellis’s trajectory. “He started at ground zero and has worked his way up at an incredibly fast pace. The possibilities are unlimited with Wyatt.”

Hailing from Maryville, Tennessee, Ellis lives not far down the road from Lewandowski. Ellis was 12 years old when he initially crossed paths with him at a PBR gig in nearby Oak Ridge.

“[Wyatt] reminds me a lot of myself when I was a kid, except he’s got a whole lot more talent,” Lewandowski chuckles. “He’s earned his place already by just sitting and studying the ones that got him into bluegrass — Bobby Osborne and Bill Monroe.”

At that time, Lewandowski was in the midst of making an album with Osborne. Titled Keep On Keepin’ On, the album was Osborne’s final recording and will be released Dec. 7. To note, the only mandolin Osborne played on the album was on a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Sweetheart You Done Wrong,” which features a triple-threat musical barrage of Osborne, Lewandowski, and Ellis.

“I see a mature person,” Lewandowski says of Ellis. “He’s serious with his playing, his singing, his music, his band — we don’t have to predict anymore because it’s happening.”

Within Keep On Keepin’ On is a modern-day cut of the Osborne Brothers’ seminal 1968 hit “Rocky Top.” But with Osborne passing before Lewandowski could rerecord his signature mandolin solo, Ellis was recruited to do the honors.

“The first song that ever got [Wyatt] into bluegrass music was hearing Bobby sing and play ‘Rocky Top,’” Lewandowski says. “Bobby showed Wyatt how to play that [mandolin] break in the song, which maybe is kind of a subliminal thing wanting to pass the torch before it was too late.”

Recently, Ellis opened for the Del McCoury Band at the Salvage Station in Asheville, North Carolina. “Del is just about as good as it gets in bluegrass music,” Ellis says of the 85-year-old McCoury. “He’s one of my biggest heroes.”

McCoury’s son and bandmate, Ronnie, a mandolin legend in his own right, sees a kinship with Ellis. “I stood onstage with the great Bill Monroe at 14 and I’d only played a few months in my dad’s band,” Ronnie recalls. “It’s something with all these guys — David Grisman, Sam Bush, Jesse McReynolds — where all of them were open to me.”

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For Ronnie, it’s a poignant thing to witness the next generation of bluegrass stars emerge. It’s not only a full circle moment occurring in real time, it’s also the inevitable course needed for the survival and evolution of this music McCoury loves so dearly.

“What I like about Wyatt is that he’s really got into that Bill Monroe style, which is where I come from,” Ronnie says of Ellis’ mandolin playing. “And, from that, he’s branching out from the roots of the music. He’s the future.”



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