Paul Brewster honored by Ricky Skaggs in Knoxville

Paul Brewster with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder at The Bijou Theater in Knoxville – photo by Dr. Teresa Ellis

Veteran bluegrasser and high tenor singer Paul Brewster was recognized for his accomplishments in the bluegrass industry last Friday night (May 27) at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

Ricky Skaggs had invited his longtime, but now retired, tenor vocalist and rhythm guitarist to join him on stage for a couple of tunes. Paul had not appeared on stage since the beginning of the pandemic. After singing Big Spike Hammer (Della Mae), followed by his classic rendering of Kentucky Waltz, Brewster was surprised to receive a commemorative plaque honoring his time spent with Skaggs. 

In the words of Skaggs, the inscription on the plaque reads: “You’re one of the best tenor singers in bluegrass music, a first-class musician and a good friend. Your presence on stage and off is deeply missed.”

Ricky shared with the audience, “Paul was with me for 25 years. Some of the best records that I ever recorded, I recorded with Paul at Skaggs Family Records, all of our bluegrass stuff. We had some wonderful times; Paul always had just the clearest voice and people loved it when he’d sing.”

In a phone interview following his special night, Brewster shared, “The appreciation presentation was a surprise. Ricky called and asked me to come down and sing a few. It was great! I had a lot of family there. It all worked out really well. I’m so thankful. It was fun and nice to see the guys again. I got to sit on the side of the stage and had my in-ears and enjoyed it very much.”

Paul Brewster has been around music his entire life. Before he was born, his dad, Willie, and his Uncle Ray, formed one of the first brother duets in hillbilly music. They played on the Cas Walker Show and The Midday Merry-Go-Round as pioneers of early country music. After Ray’s untimely death, Willie lost interest in music for a few years. When his younger brother began picking banjo in the style of Earl Scruggs in this new genre called bluegrass, Willie’s love for music rekindled and the Brewster Brothers bluegrass band was formed.

Following in their footsteps, Paul started his path in bluegrass with the Dixie Rebels in 1975. The following year, he was a founding member of the Knoxville Grass. Early members were Jimmy Millsapps (banjo), Glenn Laney (guitar and banjo), Darryl Wolfe (mandolin), Lynn Norman (bass), and Brewster (guitar and vocals). 

In 1979, he joined The Osborne Brothers and toured with them for nearly a decade. Working with the brother duo was a dream come true for Brewster.

“We went to 11 or 12 different cities in Germany the first year I was with Bobby and Sonny…a really great time!”

Keith (Whitley) passed in 1989. He was a good friend. I got bummed out, left and moved to Naples, FL with my wife and daughter, Calah. I went to work at the Imperial Golf Club pursuing my dream of professional level golf.”

After a year and a half in The Sunshine State, a second Brewster, Aaron, was born. The expanding family returned to Knoxville to be closer to relatives. Still passionate about music, Paul was happy to be near “home” in that regard, too.

“I got into sales back in Tennessee with my brother, David. We drove to the Opry one night to see the Osborne Brothers, and David gave Ricky a cassette of my singing tenor. Soon after that, Ricky called (in 1995) and invited me to join him on the road. I went to Nashville and my first gig was playing with Skaggs at the Opry.”

The Brewster family soon settled closer to Music City in Hendersonville where two more sons, Zack and Seth, were born.

Brewster retired from the road during the COVID pandemic and returned to East Tennessee with fond memories of the two and half decades that he spent with Skaggs.

“We’ve been all over the world…twice!”

Reflecting further on those 25 years, Paul addressed the audience with his own appreciation for Mr. Skaggs. “Ricky just celebrated 40 years at the Grand Ole Opry, so many Grammy Awards, and I was thankful enough to be along for seven of them. He’s got many, many more. It’s a pleasure to know all of that, but most of all, I’d like to say that I had more of a pleasure being with him as a brother in Christ. It was a blessing for me and a lot of enlightenment, for sure.”

Ricky returned the praise. “We strengthen each other. Iron sharpens iron, scriptures tell us. When I’d be down, Paul would be up; and when Paul would be down, I’d be up. Each one of us would lift the other one up when we were having troubles. God is good. He is faithful! And when he [Paul] left, He sent me another Christian, Mike Rogers. He loves Jesus!”

Now the married father of four grown children spends his days in Knoxville. He is mentoring 13-year-old Wyatt Ellis, a mandolin prodigy from Maryville, TN, via Skype. Their Tennessee Folklife apprenticeship has been a joy for both the master and the apprentice. Brewster is currently setting up to work on recording overdubs and online voice coaching.

Ellis expressed, “I’ve been working with Paul for a year now online. Meeting him in real life that night and watching him enjoy the show from backstage was something special. His performance was amazing! He filled the Bijou with his voice and got two standing ovations! Watching him sing along and enjoy the rest of the show was priceless. He had invited me to be his guest back in February and I’ve been counting down the days. I knew it would be special. I was right! I was really glad to see Paul honored by Ricky. Ricky took time to meet me and even picked a couple tunes with me after the show! It was a night I’ll never forget.”

Wyatt wasn’t the only one soaking it in. Paul’s children were in the audience of The Bijou cheering their dad on, too!

Paul’s son, Zack Brewster, concluded, “We were real proud to see Dad up there with Ricky again! We’ve watched him sing those songs our whole life! But that night, I think he had more heart put into it than I’ve ever heard or seen! He only took 10 minutes to go over the songs before we left for sound check. Retirement has not slowed him down…he’s still got it!”

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.