Just the other morning, I was cranking out some bike trainer time while watching a couple episodes of The Office.

One of the episodes was the season four premier. Fans of the show might remember this as the episode where former temp Ryan Howard is hired for a big corporate gig and, while sitting in his Manhattan office, muses on those describing him as a wunderkind.

Wunderkind. Someone who achieves an extraordinary level of success at a relatively young age.

That term was fresh on my mind as I was considering Thomas Cassell, a phenom of a mandolin player who lives about five minutes from me in Norton, the smallest city in the state of Virginia.

I have been keeping up with Cassell’s musical career during recent months, noting where he has been playing and watching videos here on the web that prove what a prodigious player he has become. To say the least, he struck me as quite impressive.

That talent was validated on a national level late last month, when Cassell traveled from our Southwest Virginia mountains to Colorado and snagged top honors in the mandolin contest at Rockygrass.

So. Thomas Cassell. The wunderkind. Absolutely. But not for long. This recent high school graduate is poised to make a big mark on the bluegrass world.

I recently caught up with Thomas to chat about winning the Rockygrass competition, the new mandolin that came as the prize, and what the future holds.

BRO – Describe that moment just before you heard your name announced as the winner at Rockygrass.

TC – I was already at peace with any possible outcome, mainly because I had already had such a great time at Rockygrass, which is an amazing festival. Hearing my name called was pretty cool, though, as was playing on the main stage – the same stage where I had just watched some of my heroes play – in the finals.

BRO – You graduated from high school in the spring. Where do you go from here?

TC – I graduated with 65 college credits under my belt, thanks to my high school, so I am lucky to be starting college in the fall as a junior. I’m going to East Tennessee State University for a degree in bluegrass, old time, and country music. They have an amazing program there, and I feel like putting myself in the middle of it all will be very beneficial to my progress as a musician.

BRO – When you want to push yourself as a player, what mandolin players to you listen to?

TC – Pushing myself is something that I constantly have trouble with, so I’m always trying to figure out new ways to do it. Of course, listening to some of my mandolin heroes – Sam Bush, David Grisman, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall – always puts me in the right place, but I try not to narrow it down to just that. Listening to other musicians playing other instruments, both in and out of the bluegrass genre, can be really inspiring. A few insiders that come to mind are Bryan Sutton, John Hartford, Doc Watson, Tony Rice, and David Grier. Some folks that don’t play this type of music, but still inspire me, are Randy Newman, Julian Lage, Duke Ellington, and Tom Waits. I could go on and on.

BRO – We are featuring “Chief Benge’s Saddle,” a stunning instrumental, on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?

TC – This has always been one of my favorite original tunes. For those that don’t know, Chief Benge’s Saddle is a place on High Knob, above Norton, Virginia, that has a lot of history and tales behind it. The saddle is on the side of a rock that hangs over a one hundred foot or more drop off, but the story goes that the height never stopped Chief Benge from crossing it. I sure have no desire to try! This tune didn’t have a name for a while, but this place came to mind one day and I saw that it was a perfect story to compliment the melody, and vice versa.

BRO – That’s a mighty pretty mandolin you brought home from Colorado. What will you take for it?

TC – Hah! I do really like this mandolin. Sam Bush has always been my favorite artist, since I was little even. It meant a lot to get one of his signature mandolins and to have him sign the back of it and show me what makes it his. It’s a really great axe, and it was extremely nice of Gibson to provide it to the festival for the contest prize. I’m very grateful to have come home with it.

Being involved in a couple different projects keeps Thomas Cassell pretty busy during these dog days of summer. Between now and the middle of September, his two bands – Fox Run and The Thomas Cassell Project – have gigs lined up across Southwest Virginia. You can catch them in Wise, Norton, Abingdon, and Bristol, among other places.

Be sure to listen to “Chief Benge’s Saddle” on this month’s Trail Mix.

Photo by Jason Wamsley.

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