When Americana singer-songwriter and former American Idol hopeful EmiSunshine collaborates with kinfolks, she follows a multi-generational lead while utilizing vocal talents first discovered by her grandmother and great grandmother.
The musical family's run in East Tennessee dates back to at least the career of Emi's paternal great grandmother, Wanda White Mathews.
Mathews became a star of live radio in the 1940s and of early television in the 1950s in such groups as Carleton Scruggs and the Home Folks. She appeared on Knoxville radio station WNOX's Tennessee Barn Dance and Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, as well as Nashville's still-running shows the Grand Ole Opry and the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree. An audio clip of the Home Folks (sometimes styled as "Homefolks") performing gospel standard "Unclouded Day" on the WNOX Barn Dance can be heard via the Berea College sound archives.
Additional accolades for Mathews include performing in an opening act for the Rolling Stones' 1965 concert in Knoxville. Yet her run of regional success hit its ceiling because of someone else's dishonesty.
"People had come knocking, Sun Records and a bunch of different things," said Emi's dad, Randall Hamilton, to Wide Open Country. "She had a manager in her group that wanted to keep Grandma there. They would send all this stuff to the manager to give to Grandma to go over, and he'd hide it all from her. Years later, he came, gave her all the things and apologized to her. She had major labels that looked like they wanted to sign her."
Mathews' daughter Patsy Hamilton inherited her mother's musical talent, as heard from their shared time in the Perfect Joy Quartet. The gospel group lasted from the late '60s through the '90s, with Randall joining as drummer when he turned 18.
My Great Grandma Passed today. She taught me to sing. She was incredible. In her younger years she did the #tennesseebarndance #ernesttubbrecordshop and #Midaymerrygoround regularly! I got to sing with her and my uncle one last time last week.... it was my favorite performance ever. #restnow #yougavemewings #isingforyounow
Posted by EmiSunshine on Tuesday, December 15, 2020
Shortly after Emi was born in 2004, her grandmother and great grandmother began harmonizing with a fourth generation talent.
"Grandma and my mother taught Emi to sing when she was very young," Randall said. "I can remember at nine months she's cooing these little, perfect tones. I'm just like, 'Oh my gosh, that's such a pure note. This child may be able to sing someday.' So her grandma and great grandma would gather around the bassinet and harmonize with her cooing. I'm sure my dad is the one that's got audio of that."
"My grandmothers would sing to me, and I would hum along in pitch with them," Emi added. "My family tells me all of this. They tell me I was able to match with them perfectly. They kept teaching me, and I was able to learn a lot from them without even knowing it."
The music industry remains a family business for the descendants of Mathews. Emi plays in multiple bands with her dad, while her mom, Alisha Hamilton, is a frequent songwriting collaborator. Emi also regularly performs and records with her older brother John (mandolin) and her uncle Bobby Hill (drums).
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