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Published: Monday, 3/22/2010

Crystal Bowersox: not the typical 'American Idol'

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It's Tuesday evening in Elliston, Ohio, and one suspects all eyes in the tiny town in Ottawa County, about 20 minutes southeast of Toledo, are glued to the TV.

It's American Idol night, and Elliston's most famous resident, Crystal Bowersox, is performing on the show.


Elliston, Ohio, isn't on most maps, but that may be about to change thanks to its most famous resident, 24-year-old Crystal Bowersox.
About 20 minutes southeast of Toledo in Ottawa County, Elliston is an unincorporated town in Benton Township and home to fewer than 100 residents.
Elliston has no post office, and searching for the bedroom community on a GPS will instead refer you to its biggest neighbor, Graytown, which offers the closest fast-food options, a McDonald's and a Taco Bell, as well as The Country Keg, where Ms. Bowersox once performed monthly. There are two churches in Elliston, including Trinity United Church of Christ , which is about 50 yards from the home of Bill Bowersox, Ms. Bowersox's father.
The church recently began
support rallies on Wednesday evenings during the American Idol results show, with a small sign outside wishing her good luck. Elliston has a cemetery and an abandoned gas station that was shuttered sometime in the early 1970s. Until Ms. Bowersox, Elliston's biggest commotion was caused by the noise of frequent trains, including Norfolk Southern's Chicago-to-Cleveland mainline and four Amtrak passenger trains that roar through the heart of the town between 60 and 80 times daily . Elliston, Ohio, isn't on most maps, but that may be about to change thanks to its most famous resident, 24-year-old Crystal Bowersox. About 20 minutes southeast of Toledo in Ottawa County, Elliston is an unincorporated town in Benton Township and home to fewer than 100 residents. Elliston has no post office, and searching for the bedroom community on a GPS will instead refer you to its biggest neighbor, Graytown, which offers the closest fast-food options, a McDonald's and a Taco Bell, as well as The Country Keg, where Ms. Bowersox once performed monthly. There are two churches in Elliston, including Trinity United Church of Christ , which is about 50 yards from the home of Bill Bowersox, Ms. Bowersox's father. The church recently began support rallies on Wednesday evenings during the American Idol results show, with a small sign outside wishing her good luck. Elliston has a cemetery and an abandoned gas station that was shuttered sometime in the early 1970s. Until Ms. Bowersox, Elliston's biggest commotion was caused by the noise of frequent trains, including Norfolk Southern's Chicago-to-Cleveland mainline and four Amtrak passenger trains that roar through the heart of the town between 60 and 80 times daily .
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In the neighboring community of Martin, Ms. Bowersox's biggest fans - her family - crowd into a small living room in the home of an uncle and aunt to watch the popular Fox program. Conversation is boisterous until Ms. Bowersox takes the stage - and the room falls silent and still.

Moments after her performance, the room is buzzing again as cell phones are out and the family is speed-dialing their votes to ensure Ms. Bowersox will perform again on the show.

American Idol night is a weekly ritual now for the Bowersox family, one they hope won't stop anytime soon.

And if it does?

"It's just like I told her before she left," said her dad, Bill Bowersox, a 54-year-old electrician with Brush Wellman Inc.

"You win, you win; you don't, you don't. I'll still love you."

Meet Ms. Bowersox

The nation was introduced to Crystal Bowersox's talent on American Idol.


Uncle Paul Bowersox, front, father Bill Bowersox,
grandmother Alice Bowersox, cousin Holly
Ellerbush and her husband, Larry, and cousin
Scott Bowersox cheer Crystal Bowersox's performance on ‘American Idol.' The family makes it a ritual to watch and vote each week. Uncle Paul Bowersox, front, father Bill Bowersox, grandmother Alice Bowersox, cousin Holly Ellerbush and her husband, Larry, and cousin Scott Bowersox cheer Crystal Bowersox's performance on ‘American Idol.' The family makes it a ritual to watch and vote each week.
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But her dad first saw it much earlier, when Ms. Bowersox sang and performed as "Suzy Snowflake" in an elementary school Christmas play.

"She filled the room with her voice," Mr. Bowersox said. "I happened to be in the back of the room and a couple people turned around [and asked], 'Did you hear that?' I go, 'Yeah.' "

Ms. Bowersox has garnered the same kind of dramatic attention for a while:

•During middle school talent shows when her classmates chanted her name after she sang.

Crystal first picked up her mom's guitar at age 10 and soon afterward began writing songs. By her early teens, she and her brothers formed a band they called Oldinuph. Crystal first picked up her mom's guitar at age 10 and soon afterward began writing songs. By her early teens, she and her brothers formed a band they called Oldinuph.
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•At the Erie Street Market where the store manager posted a sign that, yes, the big voice belonged to a 14-year-old girl.

•Her performances at local clubs that caused passers-by to stop cold in their tracks and pack the venues to watch her sing.

•Last summer, her winning the Blade Battle of the Bands contest in the solo/duo category.

And now, less than a year later, the 24-year-old has emerged as one of the early favorites to claim this season's American Idol crown. Her effortless and inspired performances have won her unanimous praise from the show's judges, including sharp-tongued Simon Cowell, who has said the competition is hers to lose.

But to those who know Ms. Bowersox best, her Idol success isn't a surprise; it's a source of pride.

"I knew she could" do well on the show, said her older brother Will Bowersox, 26. "It was just a question of would she."

With an earthy appearance that reminds one of Jewel early in her career, and well-coiffed blond dreadlocks, Ms. Bowersox doesn't strike the squeaky-clean pop image of most of her fellow contestants. Her personal story doesn't always mesh with the Idol image, either.

Ms. Bowersox is a single mom, the result of a brief relationship with a boyfriend in Chicago who is no longer in the country.

‘American Idol' hopeful Crystal Bowersox's 9-year-old cousin Elizabeth Cutcher, aunt Elaine Cutcher, and grandfather Keith Bowersox watch her performance. ‘American Idol' hopeful Crystal Bowersox's 9-year-old cousin Elizabeth Cutcher, aunt Elaine Cutcher, and grandfather Keith Bowersox watch her performance.
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Being a single mother at a young age is rife with potential problems. And Ms. Bowersox had her doubts while still pregnant, her family said.

"But by the time the baby was delivered … it was like, that's my reason for living now," Mr. Bowersox said. "She's handled it well."

Call it another life lesson for the young singer in what has been a sometimes difficult life. Her parents divorced when she was 2, and she, along with Will and twin brother Karl, were shuttled between her mom's and dad's homes on weekends while growing up. Her mother, Kelly Bowersox, could not be reached for this story.

At 7, Ms. Bowersox was diagnosed with type-one diabetes, which requires frequent monitoring of her blood sugar as well as insulin injections.

"We had to learn how to give insulin shots and all the details of handling the disease," Mr. Bowersox said. "If I had a dollar for every time I said, 'Crystal, check your sugars,' I'd be wealthy. Still, she doesn't always check when she should, and it does get out of control some time."

One such occasion occurred only days before a recent American Idol broadcast, requiring an overnight stay in a hospital and the performance delay of the female contestants from a Tuesday to a Wednesday to allow more time for Ms. Bowersox to recover. A producer on the show suggested that if she wasn't able to perform during the second night, she would be cut from the contest.

Ms. Bowersox wasn't certain of her Idol fate, either, texting her brother Will to cancel his trip to Los Angeles to watch her perform. But that night she took the stage - singing an appropriately gospel-ized version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long as I Can See the Light" - and earned high praise from the judges and Internet buzz as one of this season's standouts.

Perhaps no one was moved more by her performance than her father.

"I fully expected her not to be on the show," Mr. Bowersox said. "But when she was on the show, after she sang … I went out and cried."

From the quiet, anonymous life of a local performer in northwest Ohio, Ms. Bowersox has been thrust deep into the heart of celebrity.

And as an Idol frontrunner, she has been put in an unusual position of having the eyes of millions focused on her - where there's celebrity curiosity, the tabloids are sure to follow. Already there have been notices about Ms. Bowersox by TMZ, People magazine, and the National Enquirer.

"Some of the stuff I've read is laughable," Will Bowersox said, like the rumor his sister was rushed to the hospital because she was pregnant. "But at the same time, it was invasive and abusive."

As a measure of fun revenge on the rumor mongers, Ms. Bowersox, who has a boyfriend, wore a family heirloom as an engagement ring during a recent performance to stir up the gossip, her brother said.

The ploy worked. Reports that she planned to marry her beau made their way across the Internet and gossip magazines. None of it is true.

"The ring on my finger was my grandmother's," Ms. Bowersox said in a recent interview with The Blade. "My mom actually gave it to my boyfriend, who gave it to me and said, 'We'll talk later.' We're definitely not engaged; it's just a promise ring at this point."

Although the pair had only been together six months or so before Ms. Bowersox's Idol odyssey, her father said the couple are doing well.

"I think he found a good person with Crystal," he said. "And Crystal, as far as I know, is happy with Big Tony."

Ms. Bowersox was an average to good student, her dad said.

It was music where she really excelled.

Ms. Bowersox first picked up a guitar - her mom's - at 10 and soon began writing songs.

By her early teens, she joined her brothers to form a band, Oldinuph, a play on customers' frequent question of whether the group members were old enough to be performing in a bar or club.

The trio played a mixture of covers and originals, mostly penned by Ms. Bowersox, who had a clear direction for the band's own material.

"Sometimes she would say, 'I know how the song should be,' and I'd want to do something different and we'd argue about that," Will said. "When it came to our original stuff, she was very militant about that."

Oldinuph broke up when Ms. Bowersox left for Chicago at 17 to pursue a music career.

Like many small-town performers moving to the big city, Ms. Bowersox struggled to break through, in the process waiting tables, performing in subways and in clubs, and even styling the hair of friends and acquaintances into dreads to earn extra money.

After almost five years in Chicago, a pregnant Ms. Bowersox moved back to Elliston and concentrated on building a career through steady gigs at Papa's Tavern in Toledo, The Village Idiot in Maumee, and other local joints.

While visiting Chicago last summer, Ms. Bowersox, on a whim, auditioned for Idol after a friend told her the show would be in town. After years of resisting such requests, Ms. Bowersox couldn't pass up the financial security winning the show could mean for her son.

"It gave her a singleness of purpose when she had that baby," said her 77-year-old grandfather Keith Bowersox. "That's why she decided to go on Idol - to go for the bigger bucks."

Which would place her out of the price range of some of her family members, they joke.

Nearly a decade ago, her cousin, Scott Bowersox, had the opportunity to hire Ms. Bowersox to perform at his wedding.

"Now I probably can't afford her," he said.

For now, though, he and much of Ms. Bowersox's family are simply content to watch her each week on American Idol with the rest of the nation and follow that with a flurry of calls to vote for her.

"It's such a great feeling just to be purely happy for somebody that you know. That's how it affects me," said her uncle, Al Bowersox, 55. "It's good for the soul just to listen to that kid sing."

And, they hope, the nation's as well.

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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