THREE OAKS — It was a Thursday morning, nearly a month ago now, when musician Crystal Bowersox got the call.
The old family farmhouse in Graytown, Ohio, just east of Toledo, where she learned to sing and play the piano and guitar; the home where she wrote her first poems and songs; and the home where her mother, Kelly Bowersox, still lived, had burned to the ground.
While her mother was safe (she wasn't home at the time) the entire house and everything inside it – photos and irreplaceable heirlooms spanning generations – was gone.
"It was shocking," Crystal Bowersox says by phone during a stop in South Dakota. "There are lots of family heirlooms that are gone now. It's devastating, but my mom is doing OK, thankfully. Obviously she is shaken, but it's just stuff, and all will mend itself in time."
Shortly after Bowersox, who returns to Southwest Michigan on Friday for a concert at The Acorn Theater, received the news she set up a gofundme account to help her mom while the insurance policy could be sorted. She set a goal of $10,000, pledging $1,000 herself, and then watched as friends and fans, some anonymous, pledged $12,875 as of Wednesday.
"My fans are an incredible group of people," Bowersox says. "They are fiercely protective of me. I'll hear it after shows. They'll tell me, 'I feel like I could be your mother.' They are always asking about my health and my son. It's really touching. It's like this giant extended family that I have and I am so blessed. I was really touched and amazed at my fans for coming together. I don't know how I am going to make it up to people, but I am going to try. There are a lot of hugs after the show."
It's been eight years since Bowersox's runner-up stint on "American Idol" opposite Season 9 winner Lee DeWyze. And while she may still be unable to shake the image of the dreadlocked singer-songwriter whose bluesy growl and humble persona made her an "Idol" favorite, Bowersox has certainly used that exposure to carve out her own comfortable niche.
The culmination of that niche may be her latest effort, the 14-track live album "Alive," released last year, that features new takes on previously released material as well as songs recorded for the first time.
Under the guidance of fellow singer-songwriter and producer Jono Manson and his Kitchen Sink Studio, Bowersox performed and recorded three shows in front of 60 friends and fans in Santa Fe, N.M.
"For me, that's where it's at," Bowersox says. "The audience being there drives me in a way that I haven't yet been able to tap into when I am in a boxed up little room with no one else. I need them. I sing for them and to them. If they are not there with me, I feel like 'why am I doing this?' The same level of passion doesn't seem to be present there, so it just seemed to make sense to do a live album."
Bowersox describes the project as "an album about being grateful for every breath and every moment, even the bad ones," she says, adding, "If it weren't for the lows, we'd never get high."
Among the previously unreleased tunes are songs about her divorce from fellow musician Brian Walker, and about her son, Tony, who just turned 9, who travels with her along with their dog, Banjo.
"I feel like my life is an open book, and my songs are the journal, as cliche as that might be for a songwriter," Bowersox says. "'Now That You're Gone' is a song I wrote a few years ago with Garrison Starr and Keith Barron, both amazing songwriters and artists themselves. I wrote that shortly after my divorce, and there's a song called 'No Mistake,' which I wrote with Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, who have both had amazing hits with incredible artists. Allen had a hit with Bonnie Raitt, 'I Can't Make You Love Me.' It's a song about my son's situation and his father, and it's something I've never really publicly spoken about. It was liberating to write that song and to share it with the world. I am proud of everything I have done, but I am the most proud of this record. It is raw, real Crystal Bowersox from start to finish."
Bowersox discovered her penchant for music early on. She started playing the piano at age 6, sang in school choir, and by the time she was 10 had booked her first paying gig outside a little coffee shop in the mall for tips.
"I was a wild, rambunctious, troubled teen, and I got into a lot of trouble, but picking up a guitar and having that outlet kept me from getting into a whole lot more trouble," she says. "My mother was a country music fan and my dad is a classic rock blues guy, and then I grew up throughout the '90s listening to (new) country and was also a fan of Natalie Imbruglia and Alanis Morissette and Tracy Chapman and I have fallen somewhere in the middle of all of that."
At 17, Bowersox moved to Chicago, where she frequented open mics and began busking at several train stations, most notably the Washington and Lake Redline stops.
"Busking in the subway was like Social Science 101," she says. "You learn a lot about human character. No one wants to start a movement. It takes one guy to put that first dollar in your bucket and then everyone seems to follow. Oh, and I've also learned to sing over trains. You've got to be loud to sing over trains."
The day after Bowersox's second place "Idol" finish, she signed with 19 Entertainment and Jive Records, which released her debut record, "Farmer's Daughter," in December 2010. It peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard 200 chart. Ten months later, RCA Music Group shut down Jive as well as the Arista Records and J Records imprints. Bowersox was one of the many artists left without a record label following the consolidation.
In 2012, she self-released an EP of pre-"Idol" recordings called "Once Upon a Time," and was then signed with Shanachie Records to record her 2013 sophomore album, "All That For This." That album, produced by Steve Berlin and anchored by the song "Stitches," which features Jakob Dylan, reached No. 5 on Billboard's Folk Albums chart. Her 2014 seven-song EP, "Promises," was also largely recorded in Santa Fe with Manson producing.
"There was certainly a learning curve after ('American Idol') and I had to really search hard for a sense of normalcy in this newfound world of industry and lifestyle," Bowersox says. "But I'm 100 percent grateful for it. Eight years after the show, people are still coming out and it's incredible to me. ... I'm grateful to be playing music and grateful for the fans who continue to come out and support me."
Contact: jbonfiglio@TheHP.com, 932-0364, Twitter: @HPBonfiglio