By Kevin Joy, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Long before the final vote, Crystal Bowersox was a winner to millions, an idol in their hearts.
She connected deeply with a wide swath of viewers: single mothers, small-town dwellers, struggling barroom entertainers and music fans. All saw the refreshing appeal of a scrappy, soulful contender - a Midwestern gal who wrote her own tunes, played an instrument with gusto (alongside a makeshift microphone stand made from an old lamp, no less) and refused to alter her salt-of-the-earth persona.
She breezed through most weeks on the latest season of American Idol, rising above country and teen-pop wannabes to land praise from the show's judging panel, including the notoriously snide Simon Cowell. He called the 24-year-old singer-guitarist "outstanding" and "the one everyone has to beat."
After advancing in May via audience-driven text and telephone votes into Idol's remaining three, she returned to Toledo a rock star. A homecoming concert dubbed "Bowerstock" attracted thousands, while an appearance before a Toledo Mud Hens game - at which she sang The Star-Spangled Banner while cradling her toddler, Tony - drew a record-breaking crowd.
She even found a fan in Gov. Ted Strickland, who, on May25, issued a news release urging Ohioans to vote for Bowersox before the Idol finale, where she performed like a natural alongside Alanis Morissette and Joe Cocker.
When the Elliston, Ohio, native came in second to soft-spoken Chicago paint salesman Lee DeWyze, she may have been the only one unfazed.
"I woke up that morning, I had a gut feeling, and I was OK with it," Bowersox said. "It was a mix between statistics and an innate feeling."
On the road through Aug.31 with the "American Idols Live!" tour (Get American Idol Live tickets Here!), she spoke by phone last week from Hershey, Pa.,
Even in defeat, Bowersox has been consistently positive. She has referred to DeWyze as a brother and a friend, a nice guy who deserves the glory.
She is excited to work on a solo album that has attracted interest from Melissa Etheridge, Linda Perry and Michael Franti.
And the woman who once had to beg for insulin at a pharmacy as a cash-strapped teenage diabetic can now provide for her own child.
"There's stability," said Bowersox, whose family is watching her son during the tour. "He's surrounded with nothing but love and support. He's having life experiences I couldn't have dreamed of having."
In her youth, Bowersox sang in taverns and blue-collar bars before sparse crowds, trying to find a place in the Toledo School for the Arts before she dropped out.
She remembers sitting on the front porch of a friend's house in Elliston, a microscopic town of about 75 residents, where she wrote Holy Toledo - a wistful ballad that has since found steady airplay on several Toledo radio stations and will likely appear on her album.
"Things weren't so well in my childhood," said Bowersox, whose parents divorced when she was 2. "I was young. I was plotting my journey to Chicago. The song was about hope for what else was out there."
She fled to the Windy City at 17, hitting the subway platforms at 4a.m. to secure a spot where musicians could legally play.
Her mix of cover songs and original fare connected with commuters. Some missed their trains to catch a few more minutes, and others would return the next day wondering, "What was that song you played?"
After becoming pregnant by a man who has since left the country, Bowersox returned to Ohio about a year ago, attending an Idol casting call in Chicago on a whim.
The judges, along with guest panelist Shania Twain, issued unanimous approval, and she was off to Hollywood.
On television, she blossomed.
"I still don't get nervous," Bowersox said. "When I walk onstage, it's time to play."
She took Cowell's criticism gracefully and worked with mentors ranging from Harry Connick Jr. to Alicia Keys.
Her matriarchal "Mama Sox" nickname became vernacular.
The only slip came April 20, when Bowersox burst into tears at the end of covering the Impressions' People Get Ready - the result of seeing her father, Bill, in the audience for the first time.
Cowell didn't flinch, deeming the performance "in a completely different class" from the night's competitors. Bowersox fast became a sensation in Toledo - and tabloid fodder.
Her rumored early departure hit TMZ.com after she expressed homesickness to Idol host Ryan Seacrest. She was briefly hospitalized in March following what was believed to be complications from diabetes. And, shortly before her final performances, her relationship with Ohio boyfriend Tony Kusian ended.
Gossip magazines scoured Elliston for dirt, later claiming she was pregnant or engaged. Internet forums lit up with chatter about her dreadlocks (inspired by her readings about Buddhist and biblical studies) and, more recently, a dental procedure to close a gap between her teeth.
Bowersox is flattered by the attention but finds such energy misspent. "People get their teeth done every day - why are mine any more special?" she said. "The gulf's on fire and full of black sludge, and people are talking about my teeth. It's silly."
She plans to involve longtime bassist Frankie May in upcoming recording sessions, after the tour.
She hasn't decided whether to live in Los Angeles, but she said the tour has given her peeks at plenty of potential places to settle down. Wherever Bowersox lands, home won't fade.
"Nothing comes easy in northwest Ohio," she said. "People work hard and appreciate the things they have. It's a lot of honest people just trying to make their way in life - that's what I want to take with me.
"I'm seeing some really cool cities and cool people, but I'm just a country girl."
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