2021 FreshGrass Awards Finalists - FreshGrass Festival

2021 FreshGrass Awards Finalists

There’s nothing like some serious, emerging talent and a little competition to heat up a festival. That’s why we love the FreshGrass Awards — a cornerstone of our weekend celebrating the freshest talent on the festival scene, with 15 finalists competing for prizes totaling more than $30,000 cash and prizes!

With festival folk, family, and friends looking on, three finalists in five categories go head-to-head (and banjo-on-banjo!) performing one standard or traditional tune and one original composition. The grand prize winner in each category — selected by a jury of festival musicians and industry experts — takes home an array of prizes, recording sessions at Compass Records, hand-crafted instruments, and the band winners get to perform at the next festival.

Meet all the finalists below and congratulations to Sofia Chiarandini (Fiddle), Sam Leslie (Guitar), Thomas Cassell (Mandolin), Tray Wellington (Banjo), and Never Come Down (Band) on their big wins!


Never Come Down (WINNER)

Portland, OR

Weaving together modern and traditional styles of bluegrass and Americana, Never Come Down is a Portland, Oregon-based group composed of Joe Suskind, Crystal Lariza, Brian Alley, Kaden Hurst, and Ben Ticknor. They are dedicated to thoughtful songwriting and dynamic arrangements that highlight polished technical skills and a commitment to listening to each other. Formed in 2018, they released their self-titled first album that year and second album Better Late Than Never in 2021. They’ve toured internationally and have found acclaim at festivals and venues such as IBMA, Iceland Airwaves and RockyGrass.

Circus No. 9

East Tennessee

Circus No. 9 is East Tennessee’s own Progressive Bluegrass outfit, often blurring the lines between Bluegrass, Jazz, and Rock.  Described as “John Hartford meets John Coltrane,” the group has appeared alongside artists David Grisman, Bryan Sutton, Larry Keel, among others.  Comprised of musicians Thomas Cassell, Vince Ilagan, and Ben Garnett, Circus No. 9 is one of the most exciting new bands in the acoustic music scene today.  

“Circus No. 9 represents everything that’s good about the new generation of acoustic music. These guys already exhibit a maturity and musicianship that has me thinking we’re going to be hearing great stuff from them for a long time!” – Bryan Sutton”

Noah y Maurizio

Boston, MA

Noah y Maurizio comes out of the vibrant musical environments of Berklee College of Music and the Acoustic Music Seminar at the Savannah Music Festival. The members of the group are widely recognized as emerging artists in the acoustic music scene, and their music combines Traditional and Contemporary, Appalachian and Venezuelan, Brazilian and Jazz influences, giving Noah y Maurizio an energetic sound and broad appeal.


Tray Wellington (WINNER)

Johnson City, TN & Jefferson, NC

Growing up on Flint Hill Rd., musician Trajan “Tray” Wellington was destined to be attracted to the 5-string banjo. Tray’s love for music bloomed at an early age while he listened to his grandpa play diverse styles of music. While he did play trombone in his middle school band, he didn’t start playing stringed instruments until he received his first electric guitar at age 13. Soon, he became interested in learning how to flat pick guitar, which led him to hear
the banjo for the first time. His interest piqued, he began practicing, and his playing and musicianship have since flourished. From learning traditional bluegrass to studying diverse genres such as jazz, progressive bluegrass, blues, rock, and more, Tray has gone on to play with
some of the most accomplished musicians in the world. Before reaching the age of 21, he has received a number of awards and accolades, including two awards from IBMA — 2019 IBMA Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year and
2019 Momentum Band of the Year (with Cane Mill Road). Tray’s playing has drawn the attention of many greats in the business who have helped to bring out the best of Tray’s musicianship, and who have encouraged him to continue growing to become one of the best players in the industry.

Brian Alley

Oregon / Colorado

Brian Alley is a 3-finger and clawhammer banjoist from Oregon by way of Colorado. Born and raised near Denver, as a kid Brian cut his teeth picking at the nearby Telluride and RockyGrass festivals, while also exploring his instrument’s deep Appalachian roots. Traveling to Eastern Virginia every summer (where his family history runs deep), Brian’s been able to meet, learn from and play with some of the banjo greats from around the world. He aspires to someday grow up to become a banjo great himself, while truly hoping to never grow up.

Megan Mendenhall

Boston, MA

Megan Mendenhall was destined to become a banjo player from birth sharing the same birthday as Earl Scruggs, she has been picking three-finger style banjo since she was 9. At age eleven, she won first place for Bluegrass Banjo category at the Lowell Banjo and Fiddle Competition in 2017 and again in 2019. Megan is now 15 and is a multi-instrumentalist, playing banjo, dobro, guitar, cello and piano and has played many venues in New England with her lightning- fast finger picking. Megan is quickly developing a name for herself in the Boston area. She and her sister co-founded the bands, The Mendenhall Sisters and Stoneface Mountain, which have performed at many popular venues such as; the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Club Passim, Me-and-Thee Coffee House, and Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Summer Greenhouse Concert Series. Megan and Stoneface Mountain competed in the Romp Virtual competition in March 2021, taking fourth place.  In September 2021, Megan and Stoneface Mountain, are one of five bands chosen to compete at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival. She is beginning to compose her own bluegrass music and will no doubt develop a name for herself in the bluegrass world.


Sofía Chiarandini (WINNER)

Boston, MA

Sofía Chiarandini is a musician based out of New England. She has been playing violin since age five, and at age fourteen decided to dive into the world of bluegrass. Sofía began studying with Grammy award winning fiddle and dobro player and notable author Stacy Phillips, who was her mentor and main source of inspiration in the non classical world. Since her departure from classical music she has branched out to perform in bluegrass, jazz, folk, and rock genres with Too Blue, The Bluegrass Characters, other ensembles, and solo. In these acts she has played violin and bass as well as mandolin, piano, flute, and sung. She has performed on the main stages at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Podunk Bluegrass Festival, Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Freshgrass Bluegrass Festival, and has showcased with various groups at Ossipee Music Festival, International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass Ramble, and Winter Village Music Festival. At age 17 Sofía was accepted to the Berklee College of Music on scholarship, and has performed as part of the American Roots Music Program, as well as had the opportunity to study with musical heavyweights such as Howard Levy of The Flecktones, Noam Pikelny, Stuart Duncan, Bruce Molsky, Tony Trischka, Greg Liszt, and Matt Glaser among others. Sofía was also honored to receive the Fletcher Bright award in her freshman year at Berklee. Here, she co founded her own bluegrass band The Ruta Beggars, who performed with Tony Trischka at Grey Fox in 2018, and have released a 2 song EP called “Classroom Sessions.” They have been featured on the WGBH program “Celtic Sojourn” with Brian O’Donovan and Steve Martin’s Unreal Bluegrass Show.

Ella Jordan

Central Texas

Ella Jordan is a fiddler and singer from Central Texas. She graduated from Berklee while still her teens and is creating a sound all her own in acoustic music. While at Berklee she was awarded the Fletcher Bright Endowed Scholarship. She is the youngest ever winner of the old settlers youth competition, and was a recipient of the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin. More recently she was selected as a participant to attend the 2020 acoustic music seminar. She has also appeared on main stage sets at festivals such as Ossipee Valley Music Festival, Three Sisters Festival, Plumas Valley Americana Festival, and more. She strives to bring people together with her thoughtful and sensitive approach to sharing music.

Mari Black

Boston, MA

Called “one of the brightest fiddlers around today” (Brian O’Donovan, WGBH radio), multistyle violinist and champion fiddler Mari Black delights audiences around the world with her energetic playing, sparkling stage presence, and dazzlingly virtuosic fiddling. Raised on a rich blend of traditional musical styles, Mari burst onto the international stage when she became Scotland’s Glenfiddich Fiddle Champion, 2-time U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion, and 2-time Canadian Maritime Fiddle Champion, all within a three-year period. Ever since then, she has been spreading her love for dance-based music, performing as a featured artist at performing arts centers, Celtic festivals, Scottish Highland Games, celebrated folk venues, world music concert series, and acclaimed classical venues including Carnegie Hall. She can even be heard (and seen!) in the award-winning video game BioShock: Burial at Sea. Mari has appeared with such diverse artists as Irish fiddle master Liz Carroll, Americana master Mark O’Connor, and jazzman Willie Ruff, and been featured on the BBC Radio Scotland, Fox and CBS morning news, and NPR’s “Here and Now.” She has played concerts in Brazil, Scotland, Canada, China, Korea, Zimbabwe, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, and France…and she can’t wait for the next stop! Currently touring nationally with her trio, Mari’s favorite thing to do is sweep audiences away on a spirited musical adventure featuring dance music from around the globe: Celtic, American, and Canadian fiddling, jazz, tango, klezmer, folk, original works, and more! Find out more about Mari and her musical adventures at her website: www.MariBlack.com


Sam Leslie (WINNER)

Nashville, TN

Born in the Foothills of Evergreen, Colorado, Sam Leslie is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and sound engineer.  After five formative years in Boston, Massachusetts studying at the Berklee College of Music, Sam now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  Growing up in a musical family playing bluegrass, old-time, country, and other roots music styles, Sam has since enjoyed exploring and studying other genres and musical avenues.  As a performer, composer, and engineer, Sam loves finding how each of these fields can enhance and inform one another to shine the way to a holistic creative flow.

Ben Garnett

Nashville, TN

Guitarist and composer, Ben Garnett, is an emerging voice in the American acoustic music scene and considered one of the highly regarded young instrumentalists of his generation.  Having strong roots in both the jazz and bluegrass communities, his music is often a reflection of merging these two traditions in an informed, sincere, and at times, radical fashion that is all his own.  Ben Garnett is currently making plans to release his debut solo record, produced by Chris Eldridge (guitarist of the acclaimed band Punch Brothers), in late 2021.

Korey Brodsky

Boston, MA

Korey Brodsky is a Boston-based mandolinist and guitarist. Expanding upon his early roots in bluegrass music, he now also performs and studies old time, Bach, and jazz. He has been featured in numerous publications such as Flatpicking Guitar Magazine and Bluegrass Unlimited, was a 2013 IBMA Youth All Star, a member of the 2018 Acoustic Music Seminar, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. Over the years, he has toured and recorded with various national and local bands.


Thomas Cassell (WINNER)

East Tennessee

Originally from the sacred bluegrass mountains of southwestern Virginia, Thomas Cassell is among the highest rank of modern bluegrass musicians.  Cassell is a founding member of respected progressive group Circus No. 9, and has performed with Billy Strings, the Bryan Sutton Band, Jim Lauderdale, Missy Raines, Becky Buller, and countless others.  Now a resident of East Tennessee, he is cultivating new and progressive original music – not ignorant of the great traditions that preceded him – all through the lens of the mandolin.

In 2020 Cassell was awarded the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year award.  He is also the winner of the 2016 Rockygrass mandolin contest, and a two-time alum of the prestigious Acoustic Music Seminar in Savannah Georgia, where he collaborated with artists including Darrell Scott, Bryan Sutton, Mike Marshall, Aoife O’Donovan, Kaia Kater, and Julian Lage.  

Cassell teaches mandolin instruction at East Tennessee State University and University of the South.

Dylan McCarthy

Lyons, CO

Dylan McCarthy grew up with music. Some of his earliest memories include listening to “Breakfast with The Beatles” with his dad on Sunday mornings and making up songs for his grandmother. The passion grabbed him early and never let go. 

With over 20 years experience playing and performing, his musical background is deep and diverse. Beginning with classical piano at the age of 7, he has explored a breadth of musical genres and instruments. His high school years were steeped in classic rock and roll, cutting his teeth in Denver dive bars at 14. He hit a turning point at 18 with his decision to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA in 2012 for electric bass, while simultaneously discovering his love for mandolin and bluegrass music. He eventually made the decision to return to Denver and pursue his music career in the bluegrass music scene. 

Since then, Dylan has relocated to Lyons and established himself in Colorado as a hard-working professional in the bluegrass and acoustic music scene. In 2016, he brought home a Heartland Emmy award for Musical Composition, and in 2017 his live performances started shifting from breweries and bars to festivals and international tours including India and the UK. Recent notable achievements include playing at the 2018 Rockygrass Festival with The Lyons Bluegrass Collective, sharing the stage with Hot Rize at the 2018 Charles Sawtelle Memorial Mountain Jam and taking first place in the 2019 Rockygrass Mandolin Championship. In 2020, he released his debut album of original instrumentals, Lost & Found, and one of the tracks was awarded 2nd place in the Mike Auldridge Instrumental Contest. His finesse on the mandolin, fierce guitar playing and strong vocal presence have made him a notable member of the Colorado bluegrass community.

Sam Leslie

Nashville, TN

Born in the Foothills of Evergreen, Colorado, Sam Leslie is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and sound engineer.  After five formative years in Boston, Massachusetts studying at the Berklee College of Music, Sam now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  Growing up in a musical family playing bluegrass, old-time, country, and other roots music styles, Sam has since enjoyed exploring and studying other genres and musical avenues.  As a performer, composer, and engineer, Sam loves finding how each of these fields can enhance and inform one another to shine the way to a holistic creative flow.

Festival Partners