Marty Stuart knows who EmiSunshine is. So do those who have clicked the YouTube video of her singing “Folsom Prison Blues,” last March in Knoxville’s Market Square 1,681,526 times and counting. But, in the greater world of country music, EmiSunshine, a spritely 10-year-old girl from Madisonville, TN, is only beginning to emerge.
Last March, a video went viral of Emi belting out Jimmie Rodgers’ “Midnight Turning Day Blues (Blue Yodel No. 6)” at the The Sweetwater Flea Market in East Tennessee. And it’s no wonder — the child’s chin barely clears the checkout counter she’s standing next to, yet she’s strumming a resonator ukulele for all it’s worth, pigtails bouncing on her shoulders every time her boot stomps the beat. She looks comfortable, as if she was put on this earth to be at that very spot to sing that very song at that very moment. And her voice is startlingly clear and strong. She rocks back on her heels to glance at her father, a burly man in overalls playing a standup bass, as she yodels one of the most familiar refrains in country music.
After her unexpected national television debut, “Things got crazy,” Emi says.
She’s right. NBC’s Today show aired the viral video on Monday, and later that same week, Emi appeared on the morning program. After a short interview, the 9-year-old sang “Little Weeping Willow Tree,” a catchy toe-tapper about love and want — the second song she ever wrote. Emi smiles at the camera as she plucks the melody on the metal ukulele like its an extension of her arms.
The kid is a natural.
The Today clip caught the attention of venerated Nashville session and stage guitarist Kenny Vaughan, a longtime member of Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.
“Kenny showed me a clip of Emi on the Today show doing the ‘Blue Yodel,’ ” says Stuart, a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1992. “I watched about half of it, and I said, “Whoever she is, she’s about to be invited to play The Opry.’ ”
Rooted in Roots
Emilie Sunshine Hamilton doesn’t have much use for today’s modern country music. Or pop music, either, for that matter. She went to a Taylor Swift concert at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville when she was five years old. She remembers enjoying the show. But she was more excited about the makeover the concert-goers got from Cover Girl makeup artists, which had booths set up in the concourse.
Emi’s immediate family and forebears weren’t just steeped in Appalachian music, they were Appalachian music — the family tradition goes back to at least her great-grandparents, who were musicians themselves and lived in the mountains just as the generations that would follow. As such, it might seem natural that her parents exposed her to an eclectic mix of country, classical, and rock music in vitro.
“It started with headphones on the belly,” says Randall Hamilton, Emi’s father. “We played Dylan, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Tom Petty, and Merle Haggard.”
Randall, who plays bass in Emi’s backing band, the Rain, says since his daughter’s first days, she gravitated to old-school country music, and largely ignored other musical offerings. “Emi pulled more toward what used to be called ‘country,’ ” he says.
And the darker and sadder the song, the more Emi liked it, says Alisha Hamilton, Emi’s mother, who often collaborates with Emi on songs. “You loved Dolly’s ‘Silver Dagger’ when you were little,” Alisha says, looking at Emi, who’s seated at a large conference table with her parents and two management reps. “When you were between 1 year and 3 [years old], and you’d cry and say, ‘Play it again!’ [Her older brother John Letner] did that, too.”
By the time she was three, Emi could sing notably well, according to her mother, who shares writing credits with Emi on many of her original songs. Two years later, would write her first complete song.
“We had written little tiny songs together ever since she could sing,” she says. “But when she was 5, we knew that she could write, too.” And write she can. Her manager, Susan Bank with Red Light Management estimates that Emi has penned 50 or more songs to date. Counter to her what her smile and lively on-stage banter à la June Carter Cash meets Minnie Pearl might imply, many of the songs she pens are fairly dark.
“‘Carry Me Home’ is a sad song,” Emi says of her most recent song, uploaded to YouTube in February. “It’s very sad. Somebody dies.” It’s averaging more than 1,800 clicks a day.
A lot of people die in her songs, in fact. Not in a gruesome or morbid way, necessarily. A quick study of her lyrics show that her songwriting is akin to that of the old-school mountain music, in which pain and loss are themes often explored.
“The subject matter in her songs kind of remind me of what Billy Sherrill did with Tanya [Tucker],” says Stuart. “She sang songs that were way older than her years, and Emi is sitting there singing songs about The Depression and I thought, alright, there’s something here.”
One night when Emi was six, according to Emi’s mother, she had a melody in her head that kept her from going to sleep.
“I had this tune in my head and I decided to write it about my Mama,” Emi says. “I asked her to help me with it. I stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to write this song. When I sang it to her she started crying.”
It’s no wonder. The song, titled “Jesus Loves Mama,” is a tender ballad of a daughter’s adoration for the woman who gave her life. In it, Emi sings about a faraway day when her mother will die and anticipates relying upon her Christian faith to see her through the grief of saying goodbye.
And when the day will come
I will have to let her go
My heart may break in two
but I will always know, but I will always know
that Jesus loves Mama
“When she was writing it, the things she was coming out with was heart-wrenching,” Alisha says.
“A lot of people die in my songs,” Emi adds.
“We’re writing one right now where nobody’s going to die,” her mother offers, rather hopefully.
“No, somebody’s going to die in that one, too,” Emi replies. She sounds like she means it.
Deals in the Works
The 2014 viral video that led to the appearance on the Today show set into motion a series of appearances that outpaces by far most Nashville success stories.
“The happiest I’ve ever been on stage was that first time I played at The Ryman,” Emi says. “I was thinking about, ‘What if I mess up?’ or ‘What if I get this wrong?’ And when I got up there and I was looking at everyone, I was shocked for a few minutes. After that first song, I knew that I could do this. It’s always magical on that stage. Marty Stuart is just awesome. To meet him, that was a really big deal to me. On stage, my brother John [mandolin player] didn’t bring a pick to the stage so he stole one of Marty Stuart’s picks. He still has it. Marty was ok with that.”
Marty Stuart is more than okay with that. “Emi just walked out and she stormed the place,” he says. “I watched people’s faces and there were people with their mouths wide open. You could tell what they were thinking: What is this? What are we witnessing? I love the effect she had on the room—she stole the show.”
She also got a standing ovation. “I love being on stage,” Emi says. “That’s where I belong.” But it’s not the novelty of a child who can sing a country song that captivated Stuart—lord knows Nashville has enough kids with pipes dreaming of being the next Miranda Lambert. Besides, Emi is more of a June Carter girl.
“She’d be just another kid act if she didn’t have the goods, and she has the goods,” Stuart says. “When she opens her mouth to start to sing, she’s could be 100 years old. I mean, she is an old soul.”
The Price of a Dream
On one hand, Emi is remarkably mature. She’s aware of — and worries about — the financial burden the pursuit of her career in music is placing upon her family. Her mother says the went into debt by $15,000 in the summer of 2013 to afford Emi stage time at Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales, a seasonal celebration of music in Gatlinburg, TN. On the other hand, she is very much still a girl. The only question she winced at during two rounds of 75-minute interviews was about Stanley, a plush-toy turtle that was lost forever when the family car was stolen at a gig in Atlanta earlier this winter.
Although she has no record label backing her (yet) — her two CDs to date were self-released — a payout might loom near. Last year, her parents inked a deal with Susan Bank at Red Light Management to manage Emi’s career. Bank, who represented Britney Spears during her meteoric heyday, said that Emi is scheduled to perform at larger venues in 2015 than in last year, and she will hold her first showcase later this month—a high-stakes gig for label executives and other industry power brokers to get a closer look at artists in search of backers. There’s talk of a TV deal, but Bank would only say: “It’s non-fiction but it’s not reality, per se. It’s something that doesn’t exist quite yet on television. It’s centered around music, and Emi would be Emi.”
Her mother, a self-described optimist, admits she’s anxious about finding the balance of guiding the a rising star and raising a daughter. She says she got “skittish” in 2013 — long before the viral video — and kept Emi off the stage for nearly two months.
“I was worried at that point. I could see where this was going, and I could see her talent rising. And I got kind’a skittish. So I said we’re not going to play any gigs,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that she really wanted to do this, and that she wasn’t just doing it because her dad and her brother are musicians. I still ask her every week if she still wants to do this, or if she’s tired, or if she wants a break.”
Emi said she felt “depressed” when she was absent from the stage.
“I love being on stage,” she says. “That’s where I belong. I love it up there. If I’m off stage for a week, it feels like a year.”
Stuart likes the fact that her family comprises her band, especially from an artist-development standpoint.
“She’s the real deal, she is a serious artist. I hope that she’s treated seriously from day one, not like a novelty kid act. And I really hope she is viewed that way from her parents’ and handlers’ perspectives,” Stuart says. “[She’s] framed by those characters called family around her, which is a pretty interesting concept. I love it. I think it’s great.”
What sets Emi apart, according to Stuart, can’t be taught or artificially instilled by handlers.
“She is the product of the region, she is the product of her environment, and she is the product of her family,” Stuart says. “And that’s the kind of thing that country stars and folk heroes are built on. She’s authentic. She’s not the product of a talent show on a network, and I find that very refreshing. It gives me hope for traditional country music and roots music.”