TOLEDO, Ohio — Ron Rasberry has been playing music his whole life and has seen plenty of good players come and go. But when the amiable, redheaded guitar strummer with the glint in his eye spotted a 13-year-old Crystal Bowersox more than 10 years ago, he knew he was seeing a rare talent.
“I was hosting an open mic night, and she was there already … sitting at the table with her ma, and I asked the bartender, the owner, ’Who’s that?’ ” recalled Rasberry last week of the season-nine “American Idol” front-runner. He learned soon enough who she was when Bowersox got up and sang Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me.”
“Of course, she got up there and played and then sang and … she was amazing,” he said. “She was a showstopper then.”
Bowersox followed up that performance with an original, one of several she’d already written at that tender age. Thus began a musical friendship that endures until this day. Rasberry — who has been playing local bars for most of his adult life — has seen his young protégé leapfrog past the humble confines of Toledo’s gritty Papa’s Tavern, the venue where they first met.
After asking her mother’s permission, Rasberry invited Bowersox to come out to his upcoming gigs, lending the singer guitars and amps and helping her hone her stagecraft. “And she just did it, she stayed focused,” said Rasberry, who still plays on a beat-up $75 Fender guitar covered with the carved-in initials of friends and fans, including one on the back that reads “With (heart) Crystal 6-00.”
Crystal started out playing between set breaks for Rasberry, who said the “aw, cute kid” factor of her sets quickly gave way to genuine amazement at her talent. While Bowersox’s mom nixed Ron’s idea of forming a band to back Crystal, he continued to support her around town along with another of his longtime cohorts and fellow beloved local musical figure, Bob May.
Sliding into a booth with one of his omnipresent Red Stripe beers and settling in right in front of a mural of Bowersox painted on the wall of Papa’s, May (who bears a slight resemblance to rock icon David Crosby) said he was stunned even then by Bowersox’s poise and musical chops.
“Of course, when I first met her, she was very young,” May said. “But she always … I was impressed by her great voice. And she still has a great voice; it’s just that she even uses it better than she did back then. But it was wonderful even back then. She was creative with her lyrics and the melodies, and now she’s even better, a much better guitarist, too.”
May and Rasberry are paid homage to in Crystal’s song “Grey-Haired Rock Star,” one of more than two dozen Bowersox originals that are stocked in the jukebox at Papa’s, including the local hit “Holy Toledo,” “Sandman,” “Ohio Flies By,” “Put Your Guitar Down” and “Barbed Wire Halo.”
“She’s an artist who can bring an emotional response from you,” May said. The two men got Bowersox gigs whenever they could, and May tried to encourage the singer to seek out the emotion in her songs and find the words and music that would evoke a response from her audience. She accomplished that tricky feat with “Rock Star,” which was inspired by a conversation she had with May about how he played with an injured finger for more than a year because of his dedication to music. Like Bowersox, Rasberry suffers from diabetes, and he said there are plenty of times he doesn’t feel well enough to play, but pushes through anyway. “It’s what we do,” May said. “It’s what we love.”
“It made me cry the first time I heard [’Grey-Haired Rock Star,’] ” said Rasberry, who had heard about the tune through the grapevine. “So, she [played] it when I was in here and pretty much pulled the heart out of my chest.”
Both men described the young Bowersox as a “sponge,” who carefully observed other performers and absorbed what worked. Crystal eventually hooked up with May’s son, Frankie, who accompanied her on bass at many of her local shows when she returned from living in Chicago last spring.
“She just had a way of captivating people with how real she is; some people would be mesmerized,” said the soft-spoken Frankie May, who used to perform with Bowersox on regular gigs at the Village Idiot pub on Monday nights that he lamented were sometimes poorly attended. “It’s hard to get people to come out to a bar late night on Monday … but once we got people here to hear what it was about …we’d start to get more and more people back.”
Though they’d known each other’s families for more than a decade, the two performed together for only about a year before Bowersox made it to “Idol,” and Frankie said he’s not sure if they’ll jam again. “I really have no idea what the future holds, and I don’t even know if she will be coming back down here,” he said. “I’d love to play with her again. If at all possible. … I love her, and every time I watch her, it does something to me. … It moves me.”
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