One thing bluegrass music has always done is identify future luminaries while they are still young. You can probably think of several examples – from Josh Williams to Sierra Hull, Chris Thile to Michael Cleveland – budding artists with a special talent are found and given a stage long before they reach the age where a professional career is possible.
Along with the early recognition, the bluegrass world also provides the nurturing and encouragement that a young player needs, seeing that they receive the sort of instruction and coaching that is so vital at the early stages of what could be a life as a virtuoso. The classical music world has been doing this for so long, with instrumental and vocal competitions being held all over the world, that it’s unlikely that a child with an amazing ability could be kept hidden, but it takes a lot of personal commitment from those at or near the top of our industry to pitch in. And they never fail to do so.
Today’s example is Wyatt Ellis, an 11 year old mandolin player from Tennessee who was just recently named as a Gibson mandolin endorsing artist. Playing now for about two years, his natural ability has attracted the attention of a number of notable persons in the mandolin world, who have donated time and effort to help him achieve his goals.
Before we delve into his story, let’s have a look and listen to Wyatt and his mandolin. Here’s a video his mom shot at home for the Monroe Mandolin Appreciation Society just before Christmas, his take on Bill Monroe’s Santa Claus. He learned this one at the virtual knees of Chris Henry and David McLaughlin in their weekly Monroe Style Improvising workshops which Wyatt virtually attended for 36 weeks during the pandemic.
Wyatt’s relationship with Gibson began when his mom, Teresa, reached out to David Harvey, who heads up the Gibson mandolin division in Nashville. Harvey was already familiar with the young mando-man from videos he had seen online, and developed a quick friendship with Teresa over multiple conversations.
Her initial discussions with Harvey had to do with finding a better quality instrument for Wyatt, who had progressed so quickly from the mandolin he had started with. What Teresa didn’t know at first was that David had also been something of a mandolin prodigy as a child, who had grown quickly into a pro-level performer through the sort of help he received from top artists in the field.
David had grown up with a mandolin playing dad, and lived for several years just down the street from bluegrass legend Red Allen and his sons in Dayton, OH. He gratefully recalls the help he received as a young boy, from both his father and from the very musical Allen family in his bluegrass upbringing.
Harvey explained how he became involved with the Ellis family, and took an interest in Wyatt.
“I had seen some videos of Wyatt that his mom had posted on Facebook. After a few conversations with Teresa I discovered how many people in the wider bluegrass and mandolin community had reached out to offer assistance in response to his God-given talent.
When Theresa mentioned them looking for a Master model for her son, I told her that we had recently shipped one to Dennis Vance at The Mandolin Store. That is what started the conversation about him becoming a Gibson mandolin endorsing artist.”
Gibson is notoriously tight-lipped about the details of their relationships with artists, but suffice it to say that through the generosity of The Mandolin Store in partnership with Gibson Brands, Wyatt was able to obtain a brand new, and very special, Gibson Master Model F-5 mandolin.
Showing a remarkable degree of insight for one so young, Wyatt expressed gratitude for his good fortune.
“The music of our roots was born through a Gibson Mandolin just like mine. To now own an instrument capable of creating the drive, rhythm, and soul of my heroes is a dream come true. I do not take this honor lightly and will strive to keep learning at the knees of my mentors. I am very thankful to David Harvey for believing in me and inspiring me to let my gift be the flame!”
For Teresa, the past two years with Wyatt have been a blur. A dentist by profession, she had been sidelined the past year, both by the pandemic shutdowns, and an illness that has prevented her from working. So making sure Wyatt had what he needed to grow in his music had become her priority.
“The relationship with David and Wyatt’s new mandolin have been such a blessing. We had initially reached out to David looking for a used mandolin, because Wyatt was reaching the limitations of his instrument. It’s such a gift the way the whole mandolin community has embraced him.”
She explained a bit about Wyatt’s experiences with music.
“He started with piano when he was six, and played for three years. When he was nine, he began wanting to browse music stores any chance he could. He would always gravitate towards the stringed instruments. He knew that I loved bluegrass and that the mandolin was my favorite instrument, which piqued his interest. One day, Wyatt talked his daddy into a demo model mandolin and they came right to my office to show it off.
We got him started in lessons with Roscoe Morgan in Maryville, who began teaching him Bill Monroe style, which is what he most likes to play. A few months later Wyatt broke his right wrist playing soccer, then broke it again as soon as the cast came off playing basketball. With such a rocky start, Roscoe said he wasn’t sure if Wyatt would make a mandolin player.”
Teresa has also been able to arrange lessons for Wyatt with a number of top players, in addition to his regular classes with Roscoe.
“He had started going to local jams before the shutdown, and it was obvious that he had a special gift, being able to play songs he had never heard. When everything shut down, we were wondering how to keep him going, but found that he could do Skype lessons, online platforms, and participate in virtual camps like Monroe Mandolin Camp.
It turns out that the Tennessee Folklife program has an apprenticeship available for young musicians to study with masters within the state. Bradley Hanson started asking professional mandolinists in the state if there was a young student who might be eligible. Danny Roberts and Mike Compton pointed us to the program, which led to Wyatt studying with Sierra Hull.”
Wyatt got to meet Sierra at a show and get his picture taken with her before they started lessons. Sierra said that she remembered meeting Wyatt, but didn’t know his name or how to find him.
Growing up with lots of attention as a young artist, and recognizing all the help she received from professional players in her preteen years, Sierra says that giving back to Wyatt has been a pleasure.
“It’s been a joy getting to know Wyatt and his family these last couple months through the Tennessee Arts Commission Program we are doing. I wanted to work with a young person who was very passionate about learning. It’s been great to see how quickly he is absorbing everything. He’s a very special talent and I can’t wait to continue to watch him grow! I know many more exciting things will continue to come his way.”
Perhaps inspired by Hull’s mastery of multiple instruments, Wyatt is now studying guitar with Jake Workman of Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, as well as mandolin.
Teresa sees the lesson of this whole episode as one of accepting grace, and trusting in your fellow man. And of her learning as she goes just as her son does.
“Music is Wyatt’s gift, but it’s also his escape. I recognized when he was very young that he was very sensitive to sounds, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was a music thing. I even took him for desensitization therapy! Now I’m finding out that he has perfect pitch and other quirks of musicians such as synesthesia.
As Bill Monroe once said, ‘Mandolin pickers have to stick together.’ The people who see videos of Wyatt have been the ones to encourage him, get him into lessons with top professionals online, and attending virtual camps.”
I have said it many times, and it remains true: bluegrass people are good people. We take care of our own.
Best of luck to Wyatt Ellis!