On the surface, there's multiple similarities between Southern-born, country-singing teens Alex Miller and EmiSunshine. Being cut from similar cloth made the two American Idol contestants fast friends, ideal duet partners for the ABC series and potential collaborators as they chart their post-Idol careers.
There's differences, as well. Miller, a 17-year-old high school senior from Lancaster, Kentucky, fit the show's "small town product made good" formula that made Carrie Underwood's first plane ride out of Oklahoma a part of her winning narrative. On the flip side, 16-year-old Emi had already traveled far from her East Tennessee home, starting with an appearance on Today at age 9. More impressively, she competed for a recording contract six albums into her career.
Personal similarities and differences aside, Miller and Emi have bright futures as natural talents and big personalities who are poised to add their personal touches to traditional country, folk and bluegrass.
Two Different Television Presentations
Before the American Idol judges sent Miller home during the Showstoppers round, the Garrard County native continually stole the show.
Miller's golden ticket-worthy audition taught us his original song and future single "I'm Over You, So Get Over Me." It also introduced us to a more tantalizing side story when Luke Bryan promised that he'd try to pull some strings and land the youngster a debut appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
"When he said that, my eyes got bigger than golf balls," Miller said. "You could've teed me up and hit me out on the green somewhere. It was crazy. I was on cloud nine."
A small-town teen whose home life revolves around his county's FFA chapter and his granddaddy's farm suited the show's storytelling needs, so they sent a camera crew to Lancaster.
"It was after my audition," he recalled. "They came and filmed that... Lord, it was back in October, I believe. But it's been a while. I remember the whole town was very interested in what was going on."
Emi, an artist whose pandemic experience has included a collaboration with funk icon Bootsy Collins, had likely paid way too many dues to fit the typical Idol winner mold. That's probably why the show didn't air her audition, much less shoot footage in her hometown.
Even if it didn't line up with the show's desired narrative, there's nothing typical about Emi's 10-year path to American Idol.
"Personally, I thought that is the story," said her father and bandmate, Randall Hamilton. "Here's a kid that started a career at 6 years old and has been doing it ever since and now owns an S-corp and an LLC and has several little businesses on the side with friends that she started. She buys her own car, she makes her own money, she pays her own way and has been doing that since she was very young. I thought, 'Wow, that's a great story. That's quite inspiring to me.' I remember one time when she was like 8, we were doing an interview and I was like, 'I don't know about anybody else, but I was picking my nose (at age 8)!'"
One Common Goal
Both Emi and Miller saw American Idol less as a must-win situation and more as a learning experience and a chance to win over a nationwide audience.
"I was just trying to get exposure, to be honest," Emi says. "I wanted a new audience, and I wanted to get my name out there even more. I didn't intend to win. I intended to show people who I am."
Miller views his Idol experience through the lens of someone who's counting the weeks until graduation.
"My whole reason for getting on Idol anyway was to figure out if music was an option for me," he says. "Apparently it is, so I'm very tickled with that. That means I don't have to go to college, and that works good for me."
Even with social distancing in place, both contestants found plenty of opportunities to network with and learn from their peers.
"I met a lot of great singers," Emi said. "There's one woman. Her name is Ronda (Felton), and she was teaching a lot of different people about vocal runs and how relaxing your voice can help with that. She was really amazing, and it was fun to watch her and her journey, as well. Also, there was another guy who was on the show for just a little bit. His name was Malachi Mills, and we got to talk to him and plan on writing with him soon. So I got a lot of amazing people to work with, and that's just incredible. Having new people who also went through this experience, and people that I just really like in general. I got a couple of new friends out of it."
Miller's favorite bonding moments, aside from his on-screen work with Emi, came alongside North Carolina-based bluegrass picker Presley Barker and other like-minded talents.
"American Idol is more about the people you meet and the connections you make than winning the show, almost in a way," Miller said. "I certainly made a lot of connections and met a lot of nice folks. It's very refreshing, especially where I'm the only one who does what I do in my town, to see that there's other people out there like me. That's very reassuring to keep going and pursue what I love."
Miller also credits Bryan, Perry and Lionel Richie with building up his confidence.
"The biggest takeaway I had was they never once said, 'Kid, quit it. You're not going to amount to nothing,'" he said. "My biggest takeaway from it is they did see potential in me and did see that if I kept at it, I could be somebody. It's more about what people don't say than what they do, in my opinion. They never once said that I was awful and needed to go back to Lancaster and keep feeding my cows and chickens and stick to that. They were very encouraging for me to keep pushing my comfort zone and keep expanding into different music, which I understand now more than I did then."
Adding to the Johnny Cash Duet Discourse
Miller collaborates with a lot of older folks back home, so he jumped at the opportunity to work with Emi, whom he described as "somebody who grew up on Spongebob and not Andy Griffith."
"I had no experience with her before, but afterwards, I got to looking and saw she had a Wikipedia page and has been playing for years," Miller said. "I was like, 'Oh, we can get along just fine.' She's played the Opry, too, so it was kind of neat to meet somebody who's done that."
After the two were paired together for a duet, they quickly selected Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line."
"We had our song picked out and the way we wanted to to do it in 20 minutes," Miller recalled. "Then it was just a matter of waiting around and trying to figure it out. Then Luke threw us the curveball of 'Jackson' and doing a different song. We kind of didn't listen to him, but I think it worked out pretty good."
The duo tried to make Bryan's song suggestion work, but the Johnny and June staple just wasn't clicking for them.
"It wasn't dividing up good between me and her," Miller added. "I thought for a duet we ought to do something different anyway because who's ever heard 'I Walk the Line' as a duet? It's definitely something that's not done as often as 'Jackson.' We wanted to do something that was not completely out of the realm of our capabilities, but something that was a little challenging for us both."
Emi's yodeling was the surprise twist on "I Walk the Line" that bought the fast friends and "country little bumpkins" (Bryan's words, not ours) at least one more week in Hollywood.
Life After 'Idol'
EmiSunshine's been too busy to stay blue about getting sent home from American Idol. On April 30, her new band the Strong Armed Robbers will release its debut album, titled Room 18, and touring in 2021 looks more and more like a possibility (it's no coincidence that she took the Idol leap while live music opportunities were limited).
"I think I got what wanted out of it," Emi said. "I think that I got kind of what I needed out of it, and I think it's a good start for me to go touring again. I feel like it's a good thing to kind of get business started again, which is what I was looking for."
Emi's dad teased the possibility of including Miller in future touring plans and co-writing sessions, so we likely haven't heard the last collaboration between two like-minded Idol contestants.
While Emi's used to getting attention for her talents, Miller's adjusting to his newfound fame.
"I went from having 500 friends and family on Instagram to almost 30,000," he said. "It's hard to believe, especially at my age, what national TV will do for you in that regard. My biggest platform right now is my Facebook. My Facebook page has like 70,000 followers. My dad makes fun of me and calls me a social media influencer now. I don't know what that means, but I reckon I am one."
Coincidence or not, Miller's exit from the show came after he responded to Bryan's suggestion to stray from old-fashioned country music with a cover of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings."
"I understand where Luke was coming from as far as doing pop songs," Miller adds. "But I got to thinking about it, and at the end of the day, I didn't feel like it was a time to try to do that. I felt like that would come later on in the competition. I wanted to do what I knew best, and that's country music. So I stuck to what I knew, and unfortunately I got sent home. But I won out in the long run, so it's not nothing to get upset over, in my opinion."
Bryan's interest in Miller benefited the youngster in two ways: the "One Margarita" singer has since delivered on his Opry promise, and his push for Miller to find his own voice didn't go in one ear and out the other.
"When I was a kid, I was billed as Little Hank Williams," Miller said. "I was about 7 years old doing Hank Williams songs, which everybody thought was adorable. (My granddaddy) told me even then, he said, 'You can do Hank Williams songs, but at the end of the day, you're Alex Miller. There's already been a Hank Williams, there's already been a Merle Haggard, there's already been all of these great artists. You need to make yourself your own artist.' That's what I'm trying to do, and that's what I tried to do on the show. I know I did a lot of covers, but I'm trying to do some more original stuff now."
Miller certainly appreciates well-intentioned comparisons to Haggard, Mark Chesnutt and other obvious influences, yet he still strives to be his own man.
"It's very flattering, but at the end of the day, I'm Alex Miller and I got to do my own thing," he added. "I really do appreciate everybody comparing myself to the old guys, and that's kind of who I've styled myself after. But I've got to be my own thing, and I'm definitely not a cover artist."