Wyatt Ellis and Friends perform at the Caverns – photo © Dreama Stephenson
Take a group of kids gathered at a Tennessee summer camp, add an iconic venue (The Caverns, home of the PBS musical series, Bluegrass Underground), and multiply that by a five-piece talented youth bluegrass band for their entertainment, and you have the perfect formula for an amazing and memorable event for everyone involved.
Deanie Richardson, Sister Sadie’s fiddler and coordinator of IBMA’s Kids on Bluegrass, was asked to recommend a Tennessee-based youth bluegrass band to entertain for the first annual Camp Caverns summer camp. Her fiddle student, Wyatt Ellis of Maryville, TN, immediately came to mind. There was one small obstacle to overcome; the thirteen-year-old mandolin prodigy wasn’t part of a band. Though he had performed on stage with some of the greats in bluegrass, the young musician had never participated in a formal band setting. Being invited to the Caverns stage was something he had dreamed about so he stepped up to the challenge.
Ellis curated a special ensemble of friends he’d gathered through playing bluegrass over the past year: fifteen-year-old Ian Lane of Vero Beach, FL, on fiddle; sixteen-year-old Nathan Beaumont of Fort Lonesome, FL, on banjo; twelve-year-old Sammy Mougin (son of Stephen Mougin) of Nashville, TN, on bass; and eighteen-year-old Joe Henson of Marietta, GA, on guitar. Seventeen-year-old Oscar Boatswain of Surrey, England, also appeared as Ellis’ guest during week one. Wyatt invited aspiring thirteen-year-old Tennessee fiddler, Whysper Stephenson (daughter of Larry Stephenson), to make a guest appearance on both shows.
The quintet (Wyatt Ellis and Friends) had never performed together in a band setting, but each came with his own skill set. Lane, like Ellis, started learning during the pandemic. Beaumont has been making music since he was three years old. Playing every bluegrass instrument, he grew up performing with the Beaumont Family Band. Mougin, who has played piano since age five, had only been playing upright bass for a few months at the time of the show. Henson, typically a mandolinist, was happy to play rhythm guitar to complete the ensemble. He started ETSU School of Bluegrass this fall.
Ellis’ mother, Teresa, explained, “Wyatt has no band of his own, and there are no musicians in our family. Typically, young bluegrass musicians have a family band or at least one parent or sibling who understands something about music. This is not the case with Wyatt; he had to teach his parents about bluegrass! Thankfully, he has made friends of all ages through bluegrass music.”
Her son’s most treasured friends are those acquired through bluegrass. He was excited to invite his pals to join him for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The impromptu assemblage held only one rehearsal prior to each of their performances during the two-week camp.
“If the experience wasn’t already cool enough, it was about to get cooler,” stressed Wyatt. “The Mougin family hosted our rehearsals at Dark Shadow Recording Studios!”
Bluegrass musician, Stephen Mougin of The Sam Bush Band, coached the boys and ran the sound during their underground concerts. He said, “I enjoyed working with these talented youngsters as they prepared their songs and their presentation for the Caverns. It was great to see them figuring out how to transition from ‘soloists’ to ‘band members,’ navigating and supporting what was best for the ensemble. They worked hard in rehearsals and had a couple fantastic performances. I can’t wait to see and hear what they do next!”
The young band made quite an impression on their youthful audience. In typical Johnson Mountain Boy fashion, they launched with a high energy instrumental followed by a vocal number. Their sets included Monroe instrumentals, gospel harmonies, and spotlights on each band member. There was also a question and answer session.
“The heart of bluegrass is in the community and jam circles. I’d have never met these guys without bluegrass music,” Ellis explained about the band’s formation to the audience.
Their show concluded with Orange Blossom Special as Ellis channeled his hero, Marty Stuart, on his mandolin rendition. Following each of their performances, the audience erupted in a standing ovation. The young musicians were pleased.
Sammy Mougin shared, “It was a very thrilling experience to play with Wyatt. It was super inspiring to be in a band with these very talented musicians and to learn a bunch of songs together.”
Nathan Beaumont added, “Performing at The Caverns was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had thus far!”
Whysper Stephenson said, “It was a different and fun experience for me to perform outside of my dad’s band with kids around my own age. I met Wyatt and Ian in the big jam session at Cherokee, NC! Before it was over, Wyatt was kind enough to ask me to come play at The Caverns with them. My nerves were wrecked more than usual on stage, but I really enjoyed the whole experience and it forced me to learn a standard tune I heard first in the jam session. I hope it will not be the last time I get to sing with all of these talented new friends.”
“We’re all about epic experiences at The Caverns, from our underground concerts to this overnight kids’ camp like no other on Earth, or below it,” says Todd Mayo, The Caverns owner.
Camp director, Jennifer Sachs Mayo, stressed, “Camp Caverns campers were thrilled to experience two epic performances by Wyatt Ellis and his friends at The Caverns for the inaugural summer of Camp Caverns. We are looking forward to hosting them again next year.”
Wyatt Ellis and Friends were invited back to be part of the Caverns’ inaugural festival, Cave Fest, on October 8, alongside his heroes and headliners Sam Bush and Sierra Hull.