Wyatt Ellis debuts on his own at The Opry

Wyatt Ellis on the Grand Ole Opry (11/10/23) – photo by Nathan Leslie

Wyatt Ellis, 14-year-old mandolin prodigy, made his artist debut on the Grand Ole Opry on Friday night last week. Only a small number of performers such as Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, and Marty Stuart have made their debut on the iconic stage at this young age. The Maryville, TN teen had appeared previously as a guest on Dailey & Vincent’s portion of the Opry in February when he was 13. Amazingly, he has only been playing mandolin for four years.

“I wanted to debut {my upcoming} album and my own music on the Opry,” Ellis explained. 

When the young man was invited to make his debut on the Opry, he had to decide what he wanted to perform. Having written around 100 tunes, the teen composer made his own song choices which included a couple of original numbers.

“I chose to do my first two singles that were released, Get Lost and Grassy Cove. At the end, I chose to sing Tennessee, by the great Jimmy Martin.”

Known as an instrumentalist, Ellis stressed, “I didn’t want to go on the Grand Ole Opry and not be singing.”

Ellis began by picking an original, Get Lost, with the band from his upcoming album (Justin Moses on guitar, Deannie Richardson on fiddle, Cory Walker on banjo, and Mike Bub on bass). Then he invited his mentor and co-writer, Sierra Hull, to join him on the second tune, Grassy Cove (Wyatt’s first single release; it went to #1 on the Bluegrass Today chart). The ensemble remained on stage for his singing debut on the third song. His performance was well-received, with a standing ovation by the audience.

“It was a dream come true. To go on the Opry and sing, then get a standing ovation. What a surprise!”

Ellis was grateful to his powerhouse band. “I made my Grand Ole Opry artist debut with the best pickers on the planet by my side. I can’t thank them enough for believing in me and making me sound so good. I’ll never forget it.”

Prior to stepping on stage, Ellis received a special gift from his vocal coach, Paul Brewster. The mandolinist was elated. 

“For the past three years, my friend and hero, Paul Brewster, has helped me become brave about singing out, and not be scared of making mistakes. I was speechless when his son, Zack, presented me with Paul’s tour jacket from his days with Bobby Osborne right before I stepped in the circle. Unreal.”

In addition to Brewster, Ellis had gotten to work with Bobby Osborne for two years through the Kentucky School of Bluegrass on Skype. Brewster explained the special gift. 

“That jacket was from Sonny and Bobby a long time ago when we went to Alaska. I told Wyatt that he did a good job singing and a fantastic job playing. I was glad to see him on stage. He is a youngster that has taken in the old history of the music, and written his own material, too.”

Wyatt was escorted to the Opry in Jimmy Martin’s 1973 F-100 Ford Ranger pickup truck by CJ Lewandoski of The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.

“Wyatt reminds me of myself in a lot of ways. He loves the stories and honoring the people before him while forging his own path. He collects memorabilia and I’ve actually given him a few pieces through the years of knowing him. 

We’ve cruised around in Jimmy’s Ford a few times. So when I heard Wyatt was debuting on the Grand Ole Opry, I made plans to attend his special day. Teresa (Wyatt’s mom) casually mentioned escorting Wyatt to the Opry in Jimmy’s old truck. I wanted to make that happen.

A lot of people at the Opry recognized Jimmy Martin’s truck in Wyatt’s parking place, and Wyatt was quick to tell people who had owned it. It’s all about the story. 

I know that Jimmy Martin would be proud of Wyatt, and I know Bobby Osborne was there with us that night grinning a big smile on him. I am so proud of Wyatt. He is an amazing talent and a genuine young man that takes what he does seriously, but with passion.”

Ellis also wore Bill Emerson’s boots and Jimmy Martin’s belt buckle while performing Tennessee, originally recorded in the ’60s by Martin with Emerson on banjo.

Billy Emerson III, Bill’s son, noted, “I love how bluegrass musicians of all ages honor the legends who came before them.”

When asked about his experience, the ninth grader replied, “For me, it was super special to get to play my original music like Bill Monroe did in the 1930s. To look down and see that circle and all that history come to life was really special.”

Looking to the future, Ellis said, “I hope to play the Opry some more and keep writing and bringing new music to life.”

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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.