At 13 years old, Emi Sunshine is already an accomplished singer, musician and songwriter. She’s a fresh face in Americana music, yet her sound is classic country.
Bluegrass Today caught up with Emi at The Festy Experience last month. In addition to performing her own show, she also served as host for the festival too. It was her first time hosting and she admitted to some stage fright in the new role, but she delivered like a pro with engaging intros of bands on the Blue Ridge OutdoorsMain Stage.
Classic country Influences
Emi said her musical style is influenced by a lot of older country like Johnny Cash and June Carter. “I love Buddy Miller,” she said. She delivered an amazingly powerful version of Miller’s Fall on the Rock with just her ukulele during the Garrett Grass Gospel Hour.
“I listen to a lot of Dolly Parton,” Emi said. “Her confidence when she goes on stage is really powerful to me.”
Loretta Lynn is another major influence. “I love how humble she is and how kind she is,” Emi said. “I actually got to perform with her one night. She is just so sweet. I always want to stay humble like she did.”
“The Louvin Brothers absolutely inspire me because I love to write killing songs,” she said. “It’s something I always have fun with. There are twists and different stories that go with those kind of songs.” She wrote a murder ballad, Tennessee Killing Song, for Ragged Dreams, the latest recording from Emi Sunshine and the Rain.
“This album is so important to me,” Emi said. “I feel like it is showing some of my best work and telling who I am as a person, as a singer, and a songwriter.”
Emi wrote or co-wrote all the songs on Ragged Dreams. She played several songs from the album in her Festy set.
Emi was raised in a musical family in Madisonville, Tennessee. She started performing at age four and began full time touring at nine.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life, it’s always been singing and playing,” Emi said. “It actually came way before me. My great grandmother, Wanda Matthews, sang on the Tennessee Barn Dance. She opened for the Rolling Stones once. She was an awesome person and the Tennessee Barn Dance was a big, big deal then.”
“My grandmother, Patsy Hamilton, was an amazing singer,” Emi said as she outlines her family tree. “She formed the Perfect Joy group with my dad and they toured all over the world. They were amazing. I was very influenced by them too. The Gospel they sang was haunting and happy at the same time.”
When I was about five, I started my own band,” she said. (We both laughed as she said this because it is just so ridiculously amazing to say she started her own band at five years old!) “I started the Perfect Joy Revival because I wanted to bring that back to the world.”
When she was seven, she and the family decided to change the name to Emi Sunshine and the Rain. The band is still a family effort. Her father, Randall Hamilton, plays upright bass, John Letner, her brother, plays on mandolin and “Uncle Bobby” Hill plays drums.
Emi Sunshine and the Rain shows usually a draw crowd of youngsters along the front row. They love her music and seeing someone as young as they are perform with such confidence and poise. What they may not realize, is that she’s educating them on some of the best music from classic bluegrass, country and blues music.
“I love seeing all the kids out in the front row,” Emi said. “I hope they will be my fans for the rest of my life. I want to make them shine bright.”
In addition to her own music and cover songs on YouTube, EmiSunshine has her own YouTube interview show, Americana Corner. “I have all these people that I love,” she said. “I interview them and sing a song with them.”
“I do this because I want to show children and my little fans that are five and six who haven’t heard of these artists. I want to introduce them to people who are amazing. They need to hear the good stuff.” The show features artists like Jim Lauderdale, Tanya Tucker and Holly Williams. She was working on an episode at The Festy so look for a big bluegrass name coming soon.
There’s much to love about Emi Sunshine — new music with an old sound. She’s definitely one to watch in the future.