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It all started in a small Ohio town.Her humble beginnings and passion for music have driven the 25-year old Crystal Bowersox to become one of the most recognized young voices and up and coming singer/songwriters in America, and soon, beyond.
Crystal's emotive folk-rock-country style was catapulted from the cramped coffeehouses and cavernous subway tunnels of Chicago to millions of homes across America when she placed second on last year’s season of American Idol. Along with her old soul of a voice, her care-free style and "don't mess with me" attitude set her apart from the other contestants and eventually landed the self-taught songstress performances with the likes of the legendary Joe Cocker, Harry Connick Jr., and Alanis Morrissette.
However, the story behind the voice, the acoustic guitar, blue eyes and blonde dreadlocks is much more than skin deep. Produced by David Bendeth, Farmer’s Daughter, Crystal's first studio release (19 Entertainment/Jive Records) chronicles her personal experience of dealing with a dark childhood, to finding love and happiness as a young woman, and everything in between. “It’s my life story," Crystal says. "And that includes the good and bad chapters. I hope that people can appreciate the honesty in the lyrics and get to know me as a person through my music. I'm an open book and this is my diary."
Page one of her journal starts back in rural Ohio, where Crystal lived with her mother and two brothers on a farm. Her parents divorced when she was 2, and there began a constant chaos for years to come. Messy emotions, poverty, and issues stemming from these factors were the catalyst that led Crystal to music. Somewhere in between gathering eggs, feeding the horses, and attempts to maintain peace, her mother tried to instill in her only daughter the love of music. “We got a good deal from our Pastor's wife on piano lessons when I was about 6, and I faked my way through three years of it,” she laughs. “I couldn’t read a lick of music, but I could play what I heard. It was actually Jewel’s first album, Pieces of You, that made me want to better myself and learn to play guitar, not to mention it's hard to lug around a piano. When I was 10 or so, I was snooping for Christmas presents, and happened to find an old acoustic that belonged to my mother. I didn’t even know that she ever played."
And so began the career of singer-songwriter Crystal Bowersox.She startled and impressed listeners by writing profound songs about mature subjects, things that 10-year olds aren't normally thinking about. Crystal’s mom began taking her to karaoke bars in the area, and by 11, Her father became a roadie hauling PA's and guitars, and Crystal was playing Janis Joplin covers at roadside bars with seasoned local musicians (Gray Haired Rocks Stars, she calls them…). “I just knew that all I wanted to do was play music,” says Crystal. “It’s been an unwavering goal ever since I picked up that guitar. I was a wild horse wearing blinders, I could only see my goal in front of me.”
But her home life was anything but idyllic. Crystal and her brothers bounced back and forth from family to dysfunctional family. Crystal remembers raging fights, screaming, drinking and worse, abuse. As a result, much of the chaos she experienced as a child fueled the lyrics to her title track “Farmer’s Daughter.”
"I remember back in High School
My brother's and me
Willy put his head through the door
to find Clarity
you'd come home with bourbon breath
Jack in the air
And When you broke my bones I told the school I fell down the stairs."
"The second verse is about a night she came home drunk, swung a chair, and I blocked with my foot, which then fractured. It’s all true. But I don’t see it as a sad song. It’s a healing song, and that’s because it’s out of me now.”
Turmoil was constantly brewing between households, and always boiling over.Even when there was calm, there was still unrest. “We had a wood burning stove in the kitchen, and some winters we burned garbage or anything we could find. We basically lived in the kitchen because that’s where the heat was,” she says of her Mother's old farmhouse. “We’d just lay a mattress on the floor. I remember one winter, one of our cows came down sick and we had to bring him in the house. We had a cow in the kitchen. Yep, that’s how I grew up.”
At the age of 17, Crystal moved up and out of her little hometown, and out of Ohio. It was then she wrote “Holy Toledo,” referring to the near by city where she'd spent much of her time. "Holy Toledo," was the only original work by an Idol contestant that ever made it onto the show, and now, it’s on Crystal’s new record. “It’s about holding out for something better,” says Crystal. “I always knew there was something bigger out there for me. That the songs were meant to be heard. Although I was sad to leave, I could never forget what and where I come from.”
Chicago was her destination and during these years is where Crystal claims she really learned to live.She worked random odd jobs, bar-tended by night, and busked in the train stations by day. “I played in the subway out of the love for music and necessity. I was definitely a starving artist,” she says. “But I mostly loved to study everyday people, especially body language and facial expressions. It gave me a chance to try out new material, and see how people react. And when the trains go by, it's just a roar… you have a choice to stop or sing through it. I chose to sing. It’s really where I learned to project my voice. And it will toughen you up real quick. My mom and the subway's where I learned that.”
She eventually became a favorite in the acoustic folk circuit, where she met fellow singer/songwriters and musicians such as the late Mark Brink (who the album is dedicated to), Ryan Suzuka, and her now-husband Brian Walker. However at the time, the father of Crystal's son had split the scene when she was only 6 weeks pregnant. “That’s about the time I wrote ‘Speak Now,’" she says of the ninth track on Farmer’s Daughter. "I was a single mom, but not alone. My friends were amazing helping me out, and Brian Walker and I became close. We’d had always had more than a friendly tension between us. But we were both broke, open-mike musicians, and because of our fears of inadequacy, I was forced to move back to Ohio to rely on help from my family, with the baby and all…so we never took it to the next step, at least then. I was hurt by it. The song is about all the emotions I felt at the time.”
Crystal moved back to Ohio, and went back to playing roadside bars, with her friend and bassist Frankie May (who appears on the albums closing track, "Arlene").“People had been telling me for years that I should try out for American Idol,” she says. “But I wasn't much of a fan, and hadn't had a TV in years. In my mind, it was a karaoke contest. You get up on stage, you sing covers, and then you’re a pop star. That was never the path I intended to take.”
Crystal traveled back and forth to Chicago, halfway living there for what she thought was a new management and record deal opportunity, but again, it ended up being another dead end. Still struggling to provide for her son, a friend mentioned that there were American Idol tryouts the next day, and she’d certainly baby-sit if Crystal wanted to give it a go. Several auditions and weeks later, Crystal and her guitar finally took their place in front of the ultimate judges panel. “One of the first comments Simon made to me was ‘You don’t look like this is something you would do.’ But life is about survival, and you want to be able to give your children the world,” says Crystal. The show helped catapult her from obscurity to mega-fame overnight, and though Crystal is grateful for the exposure, she’s more focused now on what she gained from the competition as an artist and performer. “I've always known what kind of artist I am,” she says. "But I now know what I'm capable of."
During the American Idols Live tour, the song "Mason," became an actualization."Mason was born really in the simplest way. You see someone and for whatever reason the chemistry takes your mind to a place in the future and wanting to build a life together, and ‘mason’ was the thing that stuck out to me. I knew I loved Crystal when I met her," says Walker. It’s a snapshot of where she is today—post-Idol, subway station and wood burning stove. “My husband originally wrote it for me,” Crystal says of the track, who during the recoding process, lent lyrics to an additional bridge, then making the song a co-wrote with her spouse. “The words are ‘I wanna be your mason, baby. I want to build a life with you.’ And that is where I’m at right now, I’ve got my son and my husband and we’re never repeating the cycles I went through as a kid. That’s why this album means so much. It’s a way to get it out of me, and to connect with listeners at the same time. It’s a perfect reflection of me, of who I am and where I plan to go.” And clearly, the journey’s just begun.
The tour ended, and the new couple set up camp in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, at a studio where she and producer David Bendeth worked tirelessly. Pianist Jeff Kazee recalls the first day of the studio session, “In came this girl with dreads, looking all ‘earth mama,’ holding a baby rabbit under her arm. She said it hopped right up to her hands in the parking lot… and I was like, ‘who is this lady???’”
It’s a question a lot of people ask when they first see Crystal, and then hear her amazing voice. Farmer’s Daughter may not unlock every secret behind the anomaly that is Crystal Bowersox, but it does give us a look into where she’s been, and what’s made her into the complex artist she is today. Several weeks and a labor of love later, a devoted group of talented people and musicians have breathed life in to the songs that are the definition of Crystal Bowersox. Farmer's Daughter is a piece of the person that she chooses to share with her listeners, and as the pages of Crystal's life unfold, so will her honest and true songs.