A crowd is amassing around a street corner during the June Music Walk in downtown Fort Myers, as a rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” is being belted through the ether, as smiles emanate on the faces of the onlookers.
The voice hits all the octaves needed, while the chords being strum on the guitar are fast and catchy. It’s a dead-on match for the Cash classic, except for one thing and one thing only – it’s being performed by a 9-year-old girl.
That girl is Emelise Munoz, and she is singing the song that Mr. Cash would smile proudly to. Her guitar playing times perfectly with the lyrics and her natural ability to attract the people in to listen is uncanny.
It’s talent, passion and confidence all rolled into Munoz’ 9-year-old body.
“She is the full package, she has it all,” said Munoz’ guitar teacher Mike Stirn. “She has no fear and everything she does, she is aggressive with.”
That is seen in Emelise’s performance, as she hits the notes almost to a “T”, which is timed perfectly with her guitar or ukulele playing.
But what draws in the audience like moths to a light, is her natural and passionate way she plays to the crowd. Her facial mannerisms when she yodels in the song “Blue Yodel” to when she is hitting the low notes in “The House of the Rising Sun,” is directly transferring to the audience.
“She is genuine and people just get very intrigued with her,” said Stirn, who has played with Emelise at such places as Woody’s on Surfside in Cape Coral and Pete’s Timeout on Fort Myers Beach. “Right now, she has personality, she’s a darling girl, who has strength and is aggressive. Those are attributes you usually don’t find out there.”
But even though she is at the young-old age of 9, it didn’t happen overnight.
She picked up music at the age of 3 and was asking her parents, Brian and Valerie Munoz, for a guitar by the age of four.
“We waited until she was five and we ended up getting her a Guitalele, which a cross between a guitar and ukelele,” Brian said. “It’s a six-string guitar, and is the size of a ukulele. It is easier for Emelise to play, because she is smaller and she can get her arms around it.”
They also say musical talent can be genetic, but in the Munoz’ case, it wasn’t.
“Neither of us have musical talent,” Valerie laughed. “But Emma has a great memory, so that helps, too, when she is playing.”
The transition was smooth, as she started music lessons soon after getting her Guitalele. But what was quite amazing, was the fact she picked up learning music notes and chords almost immediately and that transferred right into becoming a dual threat of singing and playing guitar or ukulele.
“She learned the chords while singing the song,” Brian said. “She just sung it to herself and soon after be playing it. I have a strong feeling, when she was singing and playing together, that helped her a lot.”
The Munoz’ sent Emelise to Stirn for music lessons, which put her on the fast track.
What Stirn realized early on was that Emelise was a very unique talent, with an amazing ability to play in front of people.
“Her composure is amazing,” Stirn said. “She started with me when she was five years old, and at that age, most are attention deficit. But Emelise was always focused during the entire lesson. Although she didn’t pick it up right away, I saw she had natural ability.”
Add in a big shot of determination and “practice, practice practice” – Emelise began vast jumps of improvements and soon enough, she was entertaining other people with her music.
It started when her grandma would take her to some smaller restaurants to play and the owners would ask her to perform. As her talent and skill grew, so did her venues for playing.
“I was just happy I get to be in front of all those people and get to see their smiles,” Emelise said of her biggest thrill of playing in front of an audience.
When Stirn had gigs to play, the Munoz family would come to listen.
“I play in a little duo, so I started having her come out to places like Cape Harbour and she would sing,” Stirn said. “I will never forget, when she got done singing at Cape Harbour, she received a great ovation and people started giving her money.”
So instead of the monthly trips to Disney World, the Munoz parents were busy traveling to events such as Downtown Fort Myers Music Walk, Fort Myers Beach and different places Emelise could perform.
And there were ways Emelise could coax her parents into bringing her to her stage.
“It was a Sunday afternoon and we just got back from a trip and here is Emelise unpacking the car, going back and forth,” Brian recalled. “I told Valerie, how nice of it that Emma was unpacking the car without being told.”
But there was a little bit of an agenda behind Emelise’s work detail.
“So after she was done unpacking, she comes up to me and says, ‘Can we now go down to Fort Myers Beach so I can play?! Please!'” Brian said. “I couldn’t say no and so I packed up her gear. I act like her roadie on our trips.”
Fort Myers Beach was a destination where people flocked to hear Emelise sing and play.
On one occasion, when she was performing in “The Round” at Fort Myers Beach, she was surrounded by literally hundreds of onlookers. They didn’t want to see her quit playing and Emelise, of course, obliged.
“She was playing and I told her, let’s wrap it up, it’s time to go,” Brian said. “She turned around and said, ‘One more song.’ So, she played one more song and the crowd started chanting, ‘One more song! One more song!’ So, she played another song.”
But the encore wasn’t over yet.
“And they did that again after I got done with that one too,” Emalise added with a huge smile.
Another musical virtue Emelise has is endurance. When she plays as a street performer for the Music Walk, she will cycle through a music set of up to 15 songs, three or four times.
“She is a machine when she is playing,” Stirn said. “How far she has come along, is just incredible.”
Her biggest performance came along side of her inspiration, Emi Sunshine, an 11-year-old singing sensation. After getting tickets to see her in Fort Myers and after some correspondence between the two fledgling stars, Emi Sunshine asked Emelise up on stage to play a song or two with her.
In typical Emelise fashion, she was right up front and center without hesitation, as the two sung a couple of songs and also where Emi taught her new friend Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”.
“It was such an experience, it’s hard to put it in words,” Emelise said of the show.
Even though Emelise doesn’t have a record contract or tour lined up, she is building a fan base, with the nearly full guitar case in front of her containing one, five, 10 and sometimes 20-dollar bills, can attest to.
Although at no time during Emelise’s performances does she ask for any sort of monetary donation, people appreciate her music highly, with many stopping up and dropping a bill in the case, along with a few words of encouragement or gratitude.
After each song, Emelise shows her own gratitude with a courteous “Thank you”, and starts right into another classic hit as another group of people join the already blossoming crowd.
“She keeps every dollar and goes to the bank to deposit it for herself,” Brian said. “She also has bought her own musical equipment, which she has taken pride in.”
For the last couple of years, Emelise has been gaining fame as “that girl with the guitar” in the Fort Myers and Cape Coral area. But unfortunately, her newfound fans will have to wait until she comes back on a real tour to enjoy her show.
The Munoz’ started their move to Colorado last Monday, June 22, after Brian (who was an assistant principal at Mariner Middle School) and Valerie (who was a teacher at Caloosa Elementary) took new jobs.
It was a sad day for music lovers and those who enjoyed Emelise’s songs.
“I was quite sad about Emma and her family moving,” Stirn said. “I even jokingly asked Valerie that I would love to adopt her and keep her here. Obviously, Valerie didn’t like that idea.”
So the June Music Walk on June 19, was Emelise’s encore for Fort Myers.
And she didn’t disappoint.
During her second song, which included her yodeling in “Blue Yodel”, the moths started flocking to the light.
Then when she played her favorite song, “Folsom Prison Blues” and transitioned it flawlessly into “Ring of Fire”, there was a wall of people in front of Emelise.
It is the genuine passion she sings with, which ultimately people are attracted to and that shows in the smiles of the audience.
Her set list, which is drawn up in the car on the way to her show, includes a heavy amount of old-time classic country, Americana music and folk classics like “Zip-a-dee-do-dah” and “You are My Sunshine.”
She has a total of 30-plus songs in repertoire, all in which she gives a little of Emelise-touch to.
Her future is obviously a bright one, with one of her ultimate goals is to play in the Grand Ole Opry.
There are not many, if any, doubters out there, either.
“I think she could go anywhere with this,” Stirn said. “If she can keep her uniqueness in a very fickle business, I think she can excel in it.”
Emelise carries the tune, the voice, the confidence and the look of a future star.
Her bandana-clad head, smiling eyes and guitar/ukulele playing fingers maybe heading out of town – but be assured – the music isn’t stopping from this passionate, young girl