It’s impossible to explain the exceptional talents of EmiSunshine, an 12-year-old East Tennessee prodigy who has captured the nation’s attention as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Steeped in Appalachian music, she is a true vocal stylist, one who instinctively knows how to interpret the nuances of a song with her impressive range, even though she has yet to gain the life experience and empathy seemingly necessary to fully comprehend the words she sings. Despite a given name that reflects optimism, she is drawn to darker themes of pain, anguish and even murder, like that of The Louvin Brothers, whom she loves.
The Tennessean is just the latest 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, a more apt comparison would be to artists such as Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss or members of the Carter Family.
Whether she’s performing on the Today show or the Grand Ole Opry or taking the stage at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, she is fearless, confident and firm in her musical direction. As 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. Her talent is indescribable and inexplicable, but fortunately, it doesn’t have to be understood to be appreciated.
“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 12-year-old girl who loves video games, pets and colorful clothes. She’s had a normal upbringing in Madisonville, Tenn., 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, continuing a musical heritage to a third generation. Great-grandmother Wanda Matthews 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.
As soon as Emi was old enough to walk down the aisle, she began singing in church. She was too little to know the words, but you could hear her harmonies over the others’. At age 4, she sang “You Are My Sunshine” at her aunt’s wedding and learned how to sing the Dixie Chicks’ “Traveling Soldier.” When she was three and four, her mother, who is a songwriter, created songs for her, but by age 5, she 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 little 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. She learned how to play guitar and mandolin at age nine –the picks are still too large for her–and has since picked up the xylophone. By age 8, she was stripping down “Hush Little Baby” and rearranging the melody to sing to the pigs.
Her parents filled the house with music by Buddy Miller, Johnny and June Carter Cash and Emmylou Harris, and her musical tastes were formed. Those influences served as a foundation on which she built her own sound. “It’s kind of what came out,” she says of her sound. “I always loved that music and I thought, ‘That’s what I wanted to play. This is what I want to do.’”
She performed in churches, festivals, theaters, and for a time, talent shows. “One day I decided I didn’t want to do talent shows anymore because you could see the kids’ disappointment and it didn’t make me happy,” she says.
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 because word of her talent immediately spread on Music Row.
It led 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.
She performs about 150 shows a year and touring is a family affair. Her mother took a leap of faith and gave up her nursing career to travel. Father Randall Hamilton plays upright bass, her brother is on mandolin, Uncle Bobby is on drums and Aunt Kristal sells merchandise. “It’s fun, like how I get to be with my family all the time.”
Emi, who has 490,000 “likes” on Facebook, remains unaware of much of the whirlwind and demand swirling around her. “When we’re in Oklahoma and people recognize her, she doesn’t get why they know her,” says her mother, Alisha Hamilton. “When they come up and say, ‘My mama was dying and you gave her the best four weeks of her life. You comforted her and me.’ She doesn’t understand that she has made that impact on people’s lives. I tell her some of it, but not all of it, because it’s a heavy weight.”
EmiSunshine’s career moves will be dictated not by opportunities, but integrity. She knows who she is and what she wants her music to be, and her parents remain committed to ensuring that her wishes are not compromised in any way. After coming off a year where many of her dreams came true, Emi is quickly creating new dreams and plans. But her ultimate goal remains the same: “I just want everybody to know who I am.”