By Christopher Borrelli, Tribune reporter
TOLEDO — What makes an American Idol most?
A great story? A great talent? To understand the phenomenon that is, or will be, Crystal Bowersox, to trace the roots of this 24-year-old Midwest singer — from microscopic rural patches of Northwest Ohio to Chicago train platforms where she busked for tips, from the dingiest old-man dives to the glare of "American Idol," where she now stands a real shot at winning, or at least walking away a freshly minted star — to assemble the pieces that come together in a bluesy growl that transcends pop novelty altogether, to understand why an everyday, small-town bar musician with few prospects has most of this depressed area rallying around her: Begin at Papa's Tavern.
Papa's is on the East Side, on the side that looks like the Toledo that people who are not from Toledo imagine Toledo looks like — that is, until the economy collapsed, and the rest of Toledo began to look like the East Side of Toledo. Papa's rests in the center of a blue-collar neighborhood, within a row of squat houses, a 70-year-old bar so tucked away that people who have lived here all their lives have never heard of it.
Bowersox started here.
It is a place so unchanged that a chunk of cardboard pulled from a beer case and signed by dozens of returning Vietnam vets still hangs on a pillar, a makeshift POW-MIA tribute from the 1970s. A place so unchanged that at the back of the urinals in the men's room you can still find a "Hanoi Jane" sticker, with Jane Fonda's stoic expression at the center of a bull's-eye. A place so unchanged the lovely caramel-candy color of its tin ceiling is actually decades of accumulated nicotine, so thick the bar once brought in folks to scrub it off, but the hue was so ingrained everyone gave up after a few hours. A place so unchanged that on a Tuesday afternoon every stool at the bar is occupied and nearly everyone is smoking, the state ban on cigarettes in bars and taverns more of a quaint suggestion than a law.
The kind of place where, to borrow a phrase from Bowersox (writing on Facebook about rumors that she had threatened to walk off the show), one doesn't apologize for being human. Tim Stahl bought the bar three years ago. He remembers trying to schedule Bowersox into a weekly slot. He sits in a booth on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Behind him, on the wall, alongside the paintings of other musicians associated with Papa's, is a mural of Bowersox, carrying her guitar. The painting went up last year, months before anyone here had a clue she had even auditioned for "American Idol."
"Listen, I'll tell you, I am not big on change," he says. "I don't mind putting in a new toilet, and I don't mind replacing the CDs in the jukebox every now and then. But that's it. I wanted her in here every week, so I said, ‘Crystal, I don't have much to offer, but I can give you Wednesday nights, and that is Taco Night, and Taco Night is big.'"
The stage is small.
Big enough for a singer and not much else. Stretched across its wood floor is a rug that hasn't seen shampoo in years. Stahl gave Bowersox an old lamp a while ago. She built a microphone stand from it. As Stahl explains this, a man wanders over and hovers beside the table with an expectant smile and a beer in his hand. Stahl stares back.
"I'm a Siobhan fan, myself," the guy says.
"Get the hell out, Dave."
"He's kidding," Stahl says.
Papa's is for regulars. Many live within stumbling distance, no more than a block or two away. There's Chuck Rat. And there's Coop. There's Catfish, who comes in and cues up "Goodnight, Saigon" on the jukebox once a week. And there's the elderly man who comes in with his oxygen tank and plastic tubes up his nose and drinks until his wife arrives in her pickup truck and Tim has to carry him out of the bar. When Simon Cowell says he looks at Bowersox and sees a street musician still playing for change — and he means that with sincerity and affection — he's seeing the paycheck-to-paycheck tenacity found in a place like Papa's.
Bowersox first performed here at around 14. Ron Rasberry, a local singer-songwriter who plays Papa's on Tuesdays, says he met her at an open-mic night in nearby Genoa. He suggested to her mother that she come to Papa's and grab some stage time between acts.
"Already, I remember, instead of a bunch of covers, she was singing originals, and I thought, ‘Look, you haven't been doing this long enough to be this good.' But she was," he says. "The conviction in her voice was genuine."
She's also been a shot in the arm around here, Rasberry adds: "Toledo, if I may say so, is in the toilet right now. Tumbleweeds are pretty much rolling through downtown these days. We could use an uplift, and Crystal is it."
The unemployment rate in Lucas County, which contains Toledo, is 13 percent, a couple of points higher than the state average. In nearby Ottawa County, where Bowersox grew up, unemployment is more than 19 percent. Bowersox is not the only famous person to come out of this area: There's Danny Thomas, Jamie Farr and Katie Holmes. But if people here feel closer to Bowersox than, say, Holmes, that's because "she's done it the hard way," according to Craig Coolidge, who works at Guitar Center in nearby Holland, "and Katie Holmes went to private schools, and she doesn't feel like part of Toledo."
It's an area with class resentment but not much guile. The other day, Stahl says, eager to get his bar on the map but not eager to seem greedy, he quietly looked into how much it would cost him to hire Carrie Underwood to play Papa's. He decided he'll stick to local talent, but he doubts Bowersox will ever play Papa's again. Outside the bar, a banner wishing her good luck is strung across the faded blue facade. Inside, Stahl is saying, "I don't know if I'll ever see Crystal Bowersox again, and if I don't, you know, I admit, that would be awesome, because that'd mean she did well and she had no reason to come back here."
The next stop on our Bowersox tour of Ohio is the Village Idiot, which she played Monday nights for the year leading up to "American Idol," though it was to the smallest crowds of the week. She landed $100 a performance, which she split with her bass player and old friend Frankie May. The Village Idiot is in Maumee, just south of Toledo, and if the lack of pretense you sense from Bowersox can be glimpsed at Papa's, then at the Village Idiot, you can hear her influences, and see her Earth-mama, vaguely indie image taking shape. Nate Woodward, one of the bartenders, says — as did many of the regulars — that she hasn't improved on "American Idol" so much as brought to the show exactly what she sounded like at the Idiot.
"And I mean that as a compliment, definitely," he said.
Bowersox went to the Toledo School for the Arts, then moved to Chicago at 17, where she busked and played open-mic nights, as well as Uncommon Ground, Fitzgerald's and the Friendly Tap in Berwyn, which started a tip jar in 2008 to help her move back to Ohio to give birth to her now-year-old son.
"When she returned to Toledo and we played together again," said May, "we could not believe how much we improved."
They started to play around Toledo, and last year they won the Toledo Blade newspaper's Battle of the Bands. The prize included a $500 gift certificate for a local guitar store.
Today, a massive portrait of Bowersox hangs above the Idiot bar, across from a poster of Bob Dylan and beside a portrait of bartender Ed Lopez dressed as Isaac from "The Love Boat." Beneath it is a sign reading "Hippies use the back door" — a bit of an irony because the Idiot is something of a hippie bar itself. An ancient piano is supported by a pair of old beer kegs. A dog sits beneath a table in the center of the room. The jukebox is a mash of roots music — Mavis Staples alongside Talking Heads beside Townes Van Zandt — though, unlike the jukebox at Papa's, it doesn't have any of the handful of songs Bowersox recorded while living around here.
That said, Idiot owner John Schafer held a raffle this year and sent about $500 to Bowersox — "just walking-around money that she might need" in LA, he said. And like Stahl at Papa's, he sounds queasy when asked about capitalizing on Bowersox's potential: "I don't want to define ourselves by her, but even my 85-year-old Polish mother thinks I should be sending press releases and milking this."
Nevertheless, Tuesdays — performance night on "Idol" — have drawn packed houses and a host of white-haired grandma types "looking to get close to the action," said Kathy Lee, of nearby Perrysburg. The crowd trickles in, the lights dim outside the tall windows of this former bank, then the show begins. And the crowd talks straight through every performer except two: Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, the Mount Prospect native who is looking like her chief competition.
When Bowersox sings the first notes of The Impressions' "People, Get Ready" (the show's theme is "inspiration"), a collective Shhhhhhh surges through the room, along with a handful of exasperated expletives. Bowersox bursts into tears on the final notes, and the room Awwws. (Tuesday night Bowersox performed Shania Twain's "No One Needs to Know," a love song she dedicated to her boyfriend.)
When "People, Get Ready" is over, Woodward, the bartender, swipes at water collecting in his eyes. The band on the stage Bowersox once occupied warms up, and Woodward and Lopez begin their newest Tuesday-night tradition: They place their cell phones beside the register. They take an order, then turn to the register, text in a vote for Crystal, return to the counter, take an order, turn to the register, vote again, repeat — 200 times.
To reach Elliston, where Bowersox was born and raised and her father still lives, it's best to avoid Google Maps. Sometimes you get Graytown, the next town over, sometimes Elliston. Elliston does not appear on many GPS units either, and the Ohio Department of Transportation official state map includes no mention. Elliston is roughly 20 miles southeast of Toledo, and, depending on who's answering, 90 people live there, give or take a dozen. Stand in the center of Elliston and turn slowly, and you will see no more than a couple dozen houses, a few farms, two churches and the remains of an old gas station. Walk over to the gas station. There's a single pump, the glass across its face jagged and smashed, the price ticker stopped at 30 cents a gallon.
Elliston is so flat that from a mile away you can see a dead raccoon in the center of County Road 208, which cuts north and south. Elliston is so flat that the highest point is probably where County Road 208 rises a few feet and meets an Amtrak line, which cuts east and west. You don't visit Elliston, you pass through. It's so quiet every sound registers distinctly. A dog barks. A bird chirps. A truck roars by. A lawnmower starts. There's virtually no overlap.
Elliston is not incorporated. Its cemetery is roughly the size of Elliston. And, until a few weeks ago, when some locals sprung into action, Elliston never even had a welcome sign. So, now it does: "Elliston, est. 1867. Home of Crystal Bowersox."
The Bowersox home is yellow, and the paint on the garage is peeling. It sits behind Trinity United Church of Christ, where, on a Wednesday night, hundreds stream into its gathering hall — most wearing red and white T-shirts professing their love for Crystal — for what has become a weekly viewing party. The town is here: the pastor, who mentions that Crystal doesn't go to church here, but they want to show their support for her anyway; and "the Mayor" is here, 82-year-old Evelyn Schimming, who remembers when the town employed mostly barrel-makers, then farmers. She sits in front of a wide spread of desserts, hot dogs, pizza. Crystal is without question the biggest thing to happen here, Schimming says. "She doesn't need good luck," says Andrea Hayes, holding her newborn. "She's clearly the best." Elliston is unequivocally confident in her. When the moment comes for the weekly results, the room quiets, but doesn't go silent. There's little tension.
Standing in the kitchen, Dan Appelhans turns to his wife and says, "I haven't seen this many people in one place since the presidential election."
"Since the chicken barbecue," Kathy Appelhans corrects.
Outside Trinity, the night is starless and black, and the fields and the railroad tracks and the front yards piled with rusting bed frames and car doors have disappeared. Everyone is inside, and everyone from every surrounding community is inside. The only light comes from a cloud rimmed in silver from a faint moon and — across the street, in the living room of the Bowersox home — from the flicker of a TV screen. Between curtains pulled halfway across the window, you can see "American Idol" break for a commercial. A cat stalks across the windowsill and jumps to the floor. We knock. There's no answer. A train whistle blows from the east. And someone, somewhere laughs.
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