It’s difficult to fully explain the exceptional talents of EmiSunshine, the 13-year-old East Tennessee prodigy with the gutsy voice and confident delivery who’s captured the nation’s attention as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
EmiSunshine, who rocketed to unexpected fame as a 10-year-old after features on the Today show, will return to The Palms Playhouse for a CD release show on Friday, Sept. 1, at 8 p.m. The show is open to all ages.
Steeped in Appalachian music but with wide-ranging tastes, EmiSunshine is a true vocal stylist with an impressive range who instinctively knows how to interpret the nuances of songs. Despite a given name that reflects optimism, she is drawn to songs with darker themes like those of The Louvin Brothers, whom she loves.
The Tennessean is just the latest paper to describe her as “an old soul,” noting, “Onstage, this soul’s presence is commanding and her singing voice authentic and folksy.” While her youth might remind many of Taylor Swift, Janis Joplin and the Carter Family are more apt comparisons.
Whether she’s performing on the Today show or the Grand Ole Opry or taking the stage at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, EmiSunshine is fearless, confident and firm in her musical direction. She says she sings “old-time music,” but it’s her own unique blend of roots music that is equal parts Americana, bluegrass, gospel, and country, with a little bit of blues thrown in for good measure.
“What makes me want to do this is I just love it,” she says. “I just really, really love it. I wouldn’t trade anything not to do this.”
“I love how I get to sing to people and make them happy,” she says. “I’m really blessed that I get to do this. It makes me feel amazing, like I’m touching somebody’s life.”
Offstage, Emilie Sunshine Hamilton is a typical 13-year-old girl who loves video games, pets and colorful clothes. She’s had a normal upbringing in Madisonville, Tennessee where her mother worked as a nurse and her father is a recording engineer. But when she begins singing, playing or writing, something else takes over, a phenomenon that began before she could talk.
Before she spoke, at around 10 months old, she began singing pure tones and humming melodies from Tom Petty songs. She harmonized with her grandmothers and great-grandmothers, one of whom sang on the Tennessee Barn Dance and gave Emi the same advice that June Carter Cash gave her: Don’t let anybody walk all over you and don’t think nothin’ about what they say.
At age 4, she sang at local weddings. When she was 3 and 4, her songwriter mother created songs for her, but by age 5, Emi wrote her first song, “My Time to Fly.”
At age 7, she learned how to play the ukulele — the guitar was too big for her hands — and used it to write “Little Weeping Willow Tree.” That was the same year she recorded her first two albums, “Strong as the Tall Pine” and “Wide River to Cross,” in her father’s studio. By age 8, she was stripping down “Hush Little Baby” and rearranging the melody to sing to the pigs. She learned how to play guitar and mandolin at age 9.
Her parents filled the house with music by Buddy Miller, Johnny and June Carter Cash and Emmylou Harris, informing her taste and laying the foundation on which Emi built her own sound.
She had no idea that someone captured her flea market performance of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 6” and posted it on YouTube in 2014.
“It went viral,” she says. “We started getting a bunch of likes and we didn’t really know where it was coming from.”
Again, without the family’s knowledge, the Today show featured the video.
“We were really excited and surprised,” she says. “We didn’t know what to think.”
There was such a tremendous response to her performance that the show invited her on to perform live, a moment that changed her life, leading to performances on Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam at the Ryman during CMA Music Fest, and then to ongoing performances at the Grand Ole Opry.
Emi performs about 50 shows a year and touring is a family affair. Her mother gave up her nursing career to travel. Father Randall Hamilton plays upright bass, brother John plays mandolin, Uncle Bobby plays drums and Aunt Kristal sells merchandise.
Emi, who has 350,000 “likes” on Facebook, remains unaware of much of the whirlwind and demand swirling around her. Her mother, Alisha Hamilton, said, “I tell her some of it, but not all of it, because it’s a heavy weight.”
EmiSunshine will release her sixth album, “Ragged Dreams,” in late August.
Tickets for EmiSunshine’s Friday, Sept. 1, CD release show at The Palms Playhouse (13 Main Street in Winters) are $18 and are available at Pacific Ace Hardware in Winters, Armadillo Music in Davis, Davids’ Broken Note in Woodland and at the door if not sold out.
For more information, visit theemisunshine.com and palmsplayhouse.com.