Brewster and Ellis: Bluegrass Singing

Paul Brewster, of Gallatin, has remained one of the most respected and sought-after singers in bluegrass music for over forty years. Originally from Knoxville, Paul was born into one of East Tennessee’s best-known musical families. “I have been a bluegrass musician for most of my entire life,” Paul says. “At first music was never a planned career path, but more of a hobby. I inherited the bluegrass gene from my dad, Willie G Brewster, who was a member of the Brewster Brothers bluegrass group in East Tennessee. Dad and his brother started on the legendary Cas Walker Show when he was 13. They also played on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round with artists like Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins.”

Paul came of age during a time when bluegrass music was experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with the growth of the festival circuit and the emergence of a new generation virtuosic pickers and singers. With his family ties and natural talent, Paul was right in the mix. “I fine-tuned my talents after high school at my uncle’s store, ‘Pick ‘n’ Grin.’ This was the center of Knoxville’s bluegrass scene. I learned how to play banjo and guitar there. It was there also when I got started with the Knoxville Grass, a bluegrass group in the early to mid-’70s. I also played some with the Pinnacle Boys. At age 23, I took a job with the Osborne Brothers. I stayed with Bobby and Sonny Osborne for about 10 years and learned so much from them.”

After a brief hiatus from music in the early 1990s, Paul returned to bluegrass and never looked back. “In 1995, I was offered a job with Ricky Skaggs singing harmony vocals and playing rhythm guitar. I returned to Nashville and played with him until 2020. I have always enjoyed singing harmony, even as a kid. I never sung the lead line. I have been fortunate to sing harmony with some of the best singers in the business, including Dolly Parton, Marty Raybon, Joe Diffey, and Ricky Skaggs.”

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Paul will teach bluegrass singing to apprentice Wyatt Ellis, of Maryville. “Bluegrass singing, I feel, has sort of gotten left behind in recent years,” Paul explains. “It used to be that the voices in bluegrass were out front, and the instruments supported. Now, there are so many amazing musicians—which is a great thing—but, oftentimes it seems the voices and the harmonies are secondary. When young musicians learn bluegrass in jams, they are surrounded by instruments and you can’t hardly sing if you wanted to. In a lot of bands now, musicians don’t know when to back off and let a singer step to the forefront—that used to be a fundamental part of the bluegrass band sound. I’d like to see the music turn back toward the singing, and to see young musicians get over that fear, and really sing out and not be afraid to make a mistake. That’s how I learned with the Osborne Brothers.”

For Wyatt, singing is his latest musical interest among many. In 2020, he began a mandolin apprenticeship with bluegrass star Sierra Hull. With this apprenticeship, he hopes to develop more fully his range as a well-rounded musician. “I play mandolin, guitar, and fiddle, and I began singing recently. I hope to learn lead, tenor, and harmony singing. Paul Brewster is my favorite bluegrass singer. He grew up near the small community where I live. I have goals to sing the songs of the mountains as beautifully as I have heard Paul sing them my whole life.”