During the darkest days of the pandemic, mandolin phenom Wyatt Ellis began an online Tennessee Folklife Apprenticeship with mandolinist Sierra Hull that would change his life. Wyatt’s parents describe the apprenticeship as a spark that started a musical fire to burn in the then 11-year-old musician. When he found out that he was chosen to work with Sierra, Wyatt recalls that he, “didn’t put his mandolin down for probably three days." Eager to improve under the watch of a true virtuoso, Wyatt went from playing a few hours a week to playing a few hours a day.
Wyatt describes the one-on-one tutorials with Hull as “working on exactly what I needed to work on at the time. Details. Timing. Tone. Getting all the little things right by slowing down was a really big deal at that point in my journey. Sierra has taken bluegrass mandolin to another dimension and I was excited to have her as my guide.” For nine months, the pair worked diligently to complete the folklife program together, however, their friendship continues beyond the constraints of time.
Sierra Hull is a multiple International Bluegrass Music Association award-winning mandolin player and songwriter. Born in Byrdstown, Tennessee, Sierra started playing mandolin at 8 years old when her grandmother gave her the instrument as a gift. Her dad showed her a few tunes and chords and she was soon expanding her knowledge of the instrument with the help of excellent local bluegrass musicians each week at jams near her hometown.
As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Sierra taught bluegrass mandolin to her apprentice Wyatt Ellis, of Maryville, Tennessee overlapping 2020 and 2021. In Wyatt, Sierra saw an exceptionally skilled young musician, who, like herself, had his start under the tutelage of regional musicians met at festivals and music shows. Wyatt had recently begun his music journey at the knee of such musicians in East Tennessee. Venues like Wood and Strings Dulcimer Shop in Townsend, Rocky Branch Mountain Music in Walland, Bradbury Pickin’ and Grinnin’ in Kingston, and at Ciderville Music Store in Claxton, TN provided a rich, judgement-free learning experience for the beginner mandolin player. During his early days of playing the mandolin, the COVID 19 shutdown put a halt to the in-person pickin’ sessions Ellis had grown to love .
The pandemic also parked Hull and other touring musicians at home. Soon, the only opportunities to connect with other musicians were virtual. The apprenticeship program was a valuable opportunity for Sierra to pass forward some of the music and life lessons she gained traveling a pathway not so different from that which Wyatt is now on. “There are many young musicians like Wyatt that continue to discover bluegrass and develop a passion for it, so I don’t think it’s endangered,” Sierra explains. “However, bluegrass has never been a mainstream form of music and the only way to truly keep the tradition alive is to share the music firsthand with the next generation.
Nearing the end of their apprenticeship, the pair of Tennessee-born mandolin players culminated their apprenticeship with a co-written bluegrass instrumental, Grassy Cove. Inspired by the beauty of East Tennessee on the way home from his grandpa’s house, the then 12-year-old hummed a simple melody as he was riding through the picturesque Cumberland Plateau community seeing its fields sparkling with fireflies at dusk. When Wyatt got home, he immediately introduced the tune to his mandolin.
Fairly new to tune writing, and a little unsure of himself, he brought melody to Sierra for her opinion. Sierra jumped in with guidance and along the way added some very special touches to the tune. Grassy Cove was recorded in early 2021 as part of a larger project that will be announced soon. Sierra’s husband, award-winning multi-instrumentalist, and fellow East Tennessean, Justin Moses produced the project and brought the best out of the tunes, the band, and the young musician during Wyatt’s first experience in a recording studio at age thirteen.
Hull states, “Grassy Cove was written right around the time Wyatt started writing tunes. He came to me with an already existing three part chord progression and a melody. My hope was to simply point him to some inspiration and encourage him to explore the entire instrument outside of first position while still keeping a strong melody as the core of the tune. He drove the train and I was simply along for the ride—just to help steer a little when needed.”
“The result was a joyful tune which was a blast to play second mandolin on! It’s really thrilling to see a young musician like Wyatt dive into his music so full heartedly. He’s steeped in bluegrass tradition, but has the love and musical curiosity to keep learning, growing and expanding. Every time I hear him he sounds better than the time before. His debut album will be announced soon and is a really strong showing of his talent and it’s only the beginning! I’m super proud of him.”
Written by Wyatt Ellis and Sierra Hull Produced by Justin Moses
Sound Engineer Sean Sullivan
Studio: The Tractor Shed
Happy Valley Road Goodlettesville, TN, Recorded 4/26/2022
Record Label Knee-High Records Release Date 7/7/2023
Intro: Wyatt Ellis mandolin lead, Sierra Hull mandolin harmony
Wyatt Ellis mandolin 1
Deanie Richardson fiddle
Sierra Hull mandolin 2
Cory Walker banjo
Wyatt Ellis mandolin 3
Outro: Wyatt Ellis mandolin lead, Sierra Hull mandolin harmony
Justin Moses guitar
Mike Bub bass.