Small-town girl's guitar guided 'American Idol' finalist Crystal Bowersox in tough times

ELLISTON, Ohio (AP) — Long before adopting the dreadlocks, "American Idol" finalist Crystal Bowersox discovered what she needed to make sense of the world.

She calls it her comfort blanket — her guitar — and has been dragging it around ever since finding her mom's six-string while snooping for Christmas presents when she was just 10-years-old.

There's been one with her nearly every step, in Toledo's smoky dive bars and Chicago's subway stations, helping her navigate through plenty of hard times.

Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, leaving her bouncing among several homes. She was diagnosed with diabetes in the second grade and struggled to stay out of hospitals.

And after leaving home at age 17, she ended up in Chicago singing for rent money in coffee houses and blues clubs before coming back home pregnant and broke.

"To put her thoughts to music, that I'm sure was an escape," said one of her mentors, Bobby May, who gave her the chance to sing between his sets in bars around Toledo when she was barely a teen.

Even at that young age, he said, Bowersox wasn't intimidated by her surroundings. "Once you get into the music, you can block out any distractions," May said.

"Idol" watchers have come to know her as a singer with a cool stage presence and raw vocals that evoke Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge — and as the 24-year-old mother of a toddler, Tony. But what they haven't gotten to discover yet is her songwriting.

So far, producers of the singing competition have resisted her pleas to play one of her originals. She's still hoping to sing one of her own songs in the finale Tuesday.

Bowersox has been a favorite all season on the Fox singing competition along with Lee DeWyze of Mount Prospect, Ill., another bluesy 24-year-old. This year's "Idol" will be crowned Wednesday night.

Friends say Bowersox hoped trying out for the show would draw attention to her songwriting and that before "Idol" she had talked about moving to Nashville, Tenn., to become a songwriter.

"When America starts hearing her original music, that's when the true artist is going to come out," said Dave Gierke, one of her former music teachers at the Toledo School for the Arts.

He first heard her singing outside a farmer's market when she was 15. It was a song about her dad, Bill Bowersox, now an electrician at a metal processing plant. "She sang this song that literally brought tears to my eyes," Gierke said.

He encouraged her to enroll at the school where she suddenly found herself in a place where she could be a musician all day. "She'd play in my classroom and sing with as much conviction as she would in front of a hundred people," he said.

Big crowds or fame were never the goal, said Frankie May, a childhood friend who became her bass player. The two had a regular Monday night gig that sometimes only drew a couple dozen people in suburban Toledo up until she left for "Idol."

"We still played like we were playing to a full house," he said.

About a dozen of her original songs already have been posted on YouTube.

Some are heart-wrenching, revealing a unique "old soul" quality that her teachers noticed early on when she was still a teenager.

"The songs she writes are real," said Jamie Dauel, her high school choir teacher. "They're either things she's lived, things she's seen, stories she's heard. She puts that all together in a package that other people can relate to."

Bowersox has been writing originals longer than she's been playing guitar.

She grew up in Elliston, a village of no more than 100 people that didn't have a sign welcoming visitors until a few months ago when church members put up a sign honoring the hometown star.

It was here where she had time to reflect on life and put it into songs.

Neighbors remember hearing her sing late at night in a garage next to the house.

Her elementary school music teacher, Vicki Sievert, remembers that she came to her in the third or fourth grade with a song she had written.

"It was a real song. It had form, it had melody, it had harmony," she said. "I was so impressed. I knew then there was a lot of talent." At first, she started out singing karaoke in bars with her mother. At county fairs, festivals and talent shows, she'd sing with a guitar almost as big as she was, sometimes winning money to buy clothes.

By age 14, she was on stage by herself, playing mostly original music.

There was never any question that her future was in music.

Classmates in junior high chanted her name when she sang and voted her most likely to be famous. She left her teachers in awe when she sang a Jewel song — her favorite singer back then — at a school talent show.

"She was in control of the world when she was on the stage with her guitar," said Les Wyse, a former history teacher. "She owned the stage and could do anything she wanted."