It's been a year since Crystal Bowersox stood on the American Idol stage under the bright lights and intense scrutiny of millions of Americans.
Was she "in it to win it" as Randy Jackson would suggest inanely to every contestant who paraded before him or would she be "too pitchy?" Would Bowersox withstand the withering criticism of snobby Simon Cowell? (Ellen Degeneres and Kara DioGuardi were there too, but enough said on that.)
As we all know by now Bowersox finished second to Chicagoan Lee DeWyze and if that seems like a long time ago to you, then for the Elliston, Ohio, native, it might as well have been in another lifetime.
Here she was last week in a North Toledo garage, putting her band through its paces during a rehearsal, sipping a beer, and discussing with her longtime musical collaborator, Frankie May, whether a song should end one section on a IV or a V chord. It's the tedious stuff that goes into any well-crafted song and it's hard work. There's no glamour to plowing into a song for about a minute and then having it grind to a halt because the tempo's not right or the bridge hasn't been worked out yet.
The mood is light and inside jokes and a lot of laughter take place, but it's still work. The only judges in this setting are your own muse and the guys standing around waiting to see if you can get it right, which makes it Bowersox's natural element, given that she's been making music for more than half of her 25 years.
One of the new songs is a tight, three-and-a-half minute roots rocker called "Home Is the Place" that reflects her current mind-set.
"It's just a positive song," she said in an interview a day later. "I haven't written very many straight positive tunes in my life because I never really felt like I had a lot of positivity to write about. Now I'm in a really good place and I'm not struggling anymore like I used to. You know, I can sit and think about happy things when I'm not thinking about where my next meal's coming from."
Bowersox is a Chicago resident where she lives with her husband, fellow singer/songwriter Brian Walker (see a review of his CD on page 24), and 2-year-old son Tony. She is returning to Toledo on Saturday for a pair of benefit concerts for the Toledo School for the Arts.
The band she has put together -- Charlie King on mandolin, Ryan Suzuka on harmonica, May on bass, and Dan Jahns on drums -- provides a sound that is much more acoustic and Americana oriented than her release, 2010's "Farmer's Daughter."
She admits that while she's proud of the album, the songs on it took on a different life once she went into the studio, sometimes sounding completely different than she intended.
"For me, especially on the first album I had this idea of exactly what I wanted it to sound like but I couldn't articulate it to the producer and the band members. If you tell players what to do too much it destroys really what the song is organically going to be," she said.
It's a mistake, though, to conclude that the Idol experience was bad for her. Bowersox admitted that when she first auditioned in Chicago she didn't expect much, but said the grueling process was worth it.
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"I'd like to think I would've made it to this level or farther on my own, but you can't ask for a better training spring board. I had a preconceived notion before I did Idol and I'm definitely a changed woman," she said.
"[I thought] it was a Hollywood thing and kind of a karaoke contest. After being on the show and going through it and everything it was, I realize how hard it was, how much work it involved, and the kind of courage it takes to get up there and allow yourself to be judged, it's such an unnatural process. Thank goodness I did it."
She said she's gotten used to the notoriety that came with the Idol run.
"It's unnatural for anyone to have people who recognize you and come up to you and know important details about you," she said. "It is strange, but it's part of the reason I did this. If it weren't for people recognizing me or being a fan of my music I wouldn't have this life and be able to do what I love for a living."
Since Idol she's married Walker, performed on stage with the Doobie Brothers and John Popper of Blues Traveler, recorded a public service announcement with B.B. King, and bounced around the country playing with her band, honing her set list and introducing new songs to her fans.
The title track to her album attracted attention because of the naked honesty it used to address Bowersox's troubled relationship with her mother, which she's said in past performances has been mended. Looking back now, she said she might have picked a different song to be identified with so early in her career.
"When I chose to go with 'Farmer's Daughter' to go with as the title track and single, I didn't think it through as much as I should have. I thought at the time I wanted to get it off my chest, which was more of a selfish move than it was to think about ... I could have had my introduction the musical world post-Idol, a much more positive message, you know what I mean?
"And that's where I want my music to go. I don't want to sit and dwell on, 'Oh, the bad things that have happened to me.' I want to look forward to where I'm heading and the kind of bright future I have for my son. I want him to smile every day and not think about his shortcomings."
It's informative to note the artists whose careers Bowersox said she would most like to emulate: Bonnie Raitt and Jakob Dylan. Both are singer/songwriters with intensely loyal fan bases and a great deal of respect in the music community. Note that she didn't mention Idol mega stars such as Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson.
While "Farmer's Daughter" has sold more than 160,000 copies, she said she's not concerned with record sales or playing big arenas as long as she has her music and her family.
"If all else fails, I'll keep writing songs and give them to other people. Whatever, I'll stay home and raise my boy and have chickens or something and we'll just hang out. I want to ride this wave as long as it will take me and try to reach as many people as I can until it explodes or fades away," she said. "I can tell stories to my kids and grandkids about it and that's great. And hopefully I'll have more stories to tell."
Bowersox's 7 p.m. concert at the Valentine Theatre, 410 Adams St., is sold out. A few tickets remained Wednesday for the 10 p.m. show and they are $49 and $69. Proceeds from the concert benefit the Toledo School for the Arts and are available at the Valentine box office or at valentinetheatre.com.
Contact Rod Lockwood at email@example.com or 419-724-6159.