Donald Spurgeon photo
When you’re only nine years old, the world seems like a pretty big place with lots of rules and adults running the show. There are a few things, though, you’ve mastered by that age, like the art of coloring in between the lines, knowing your multiplication tables, maybe you’ve even had a taste of geometry.
When it comes to music, most kids in elementary school are only exposed to what their parents play on the ride to school, what big brother or sister play on their headphones, or the occasional movie soundtrack, but the up and coming child sensation from Madisonville, Tenn., Emi Sunshine, has been fortunate enough to know traditional country and gospel music as it was played and sung in her home for generations. And while other kids are still working on their coloring books and puzzles, this entertainer is looking forward to a new album due out this year. How many 9-year-olds can say that?
In 2014, Emi will release Black Sunday ‘35, a compilation of 16 original songs written by an old soul trapped in a young body with a sound that seems to tell the world that she’s already gotten life figured out.
Music has been in Emi’s bloodline for a least three generations. Her great-grandmother Wanda was a regular on Knoxville’s Midday Merry-Go-Round, a popular mountain music show on radio station WNOX, and earned a reputation as a consummate singer and entertainer who could turn on the Southern charm at a moment’s notice, a trait Emi has clearly learned to her advantage. Emi’s grandmother, Patsy Hamilton, was also highly regarded in her community as a lovely gospel singer who passed along her musical talents to her son, Randall Hamilton, Emi’s father. Randall plays bass and tours with Emi to her various gigs across the state of Tennessee.
“My mom helps me with writing and getting ready for shows. My dad helps me learn my songs so I can play them out,” Emi said.
Black Sunday ‘35 is an impressive collection of original country-tinged ballads and traditional folk inspired tunes that showcases the blossoming talents of this awe-inspiring pre-teen. Although her voice still sounds appropriately youthful, you can clearly hear the promise of what’s to come with age and experience. On songs like “Madelyn’s Hill” and the classic “Mary Don’t You Weep,” she hovers somewhere between an early Dolly Parton and a young Loretta Lynn with enough conviction to be taken seriously. Playing ukulele on most songs, Emi, along with her band, The Rain, get the toes tapping and the dance floor grooving with honky-tonk flavored tunes like “Lay Your Burdens Down.” Meanwhile “Blue For You” is quite the jam when the band hits its stride as Emi sings, “I’ll go to seek my fortune. I’ll go to find my fame. One day you’ll be sorry. You’re screaming call my name.” Move over Taylor Swift, Emi Sunshine might be the next big thing.
Having performed at several festivals, house parties, churches, and even winning the Youth Talent Grand Prize at the Tennessee Valley State Fair, Emi Sunshine and The Rain have their sights set on the future as they begin preparations for a regional tour in 2014 to promote the release of her new album. And if this album is any indication of what’s to come, keep an eye on this young lady, one day she might be the star she hopes to be.
Q&A with Emi Sunshine
SML: Tell me your earliest memory involving music.
Emi Sunshine: Listening to my grandmother and great grandmother singing to me. My mom says that when I was a baby, before I could talk, if a song came on the radio that I did not like, I would cry until they changed it.
How important is music to you and your family?
Music is very important to me. I love it. It is just a part of me. Most of my time, I am either playing, singing, writing or listening to music. It is just as important to my family. My mom helps me with writing and getting ready for shows. My dad helps me learn my songs so I can play them out.
When did you finally learn that if you put some chords together you’ve got a song?
At 6, playing ukulele I figured out I could play along to Patti Griffin’s “Deaths Got a Warrant,” and I was hooked.
Do you remember the first song you sang all the way through?
“Traveling Solider” by Dixie Chicks for my family and friends at five years old. I had to sing that all the time. Total strangers would stop me and ask me to sing it.
Let’s talk about your new album, what inspired you when you started writing songs for this album?
Different things inspired me for each song. “Black Sunday” was inspired by a school lesson on the Dust Bowl. “Little Weeping Willow Tree” was inspired by a little boy that liked me. “Creole Boys” was inspired by a New Orleans restaurant owner in Gatlinburg that really treated me very kind so I wanted to write a song for them. “Jesus Loves Mama” was inspired by my mom, that I love, and I wanted to write a song for her. Other musicians like Mike Farris, Buddy Miller and Dolly Parton, along with local artist Matt Woods, really move me and make me want to write and play out. If I listen to them, I get really excited and want to go find a spot to write or play.
Who are the other musicians that back you up on the album? How did you come to meet them?
Randall Hamilton, my dad, played bass. Bobby Hill played drums; he is a long-time, close family friend. John Letner, my brother, played mandolin. Neil Turpin played guitar; he is a close family friend and our go-to guy for any session we do. We also pulled in other session players for certain songs, but mostly we keep it simple. For fiddle, we pulled in Ben Probus from Nashville Gig Finder and his playing made the album for me.
You sing some very heart-warming songs on your album. Was it a challenge to write them or did they just come naturally?
They just come naturally. I just listen to what the melody says. I try to stay true to the song and only put what it needs. No more and no less.
How would you describe to kids your age what it’s like to play and sing songs?
I’m starting to learn how to play guitar, I recommend to kids under 10 to start off playing ukulele because your hands are so little that a guitar would be too big and a uke is easier to play. As far as what it’s like, it’s amazing. To make an audience happy or feel something just by using my words and melody is the best.
Do you ever get nervous when you’re about to perform for an audience?
I get excited, but I usually don’t get nervous. I love performing.