We arrived in Toledo, Ohio on Tuesday afternoon eager to meet and greet the people who knew Crystal Bowersox before she became a leading contender on America's top reality singing show. These are the folks who saw a 12-year-old girl get up on stage at a bar during a set break and blow the roof off the joint. They were dumbfounded when she sang original songs at 13 and professed her confidence at 16 that she'd be a star someday. They knew she'd be a star way before the rest of the country discovered her on "American Idol."
Our first stop was Papa's Tavern, an 70-year-old saloon across the Maumee River from downtown Toledo smack dab in the middle of a working class neighborhood. I've never had a neighborhood bar, but if I did, this place is what I imagine it would be like. Everyone greeted us like old friends as we walked in. One of Bowersox's CDs was, of course, blasting out of the jukebox, which was stocked with more than 30 of her originals with names like "Sandman," "Ohio Flies," "Put Your Guitar Down" and "Barbed Wire Halo." Even at 5:30 p.m., the place was packed with Harley gear-wearing regulars drinking domestic cans and stepping out (or not) to grab a smoke.
On the wall next to the cramped, foot-high riser stage where Crystal had a regular gig on Wednesday nights was a mural of her slinging an acoustic guitar, accompanied by painted images of two of her musical mentors, Ron Rasberry and Bob May (pictured below). The men are local legends, having haunted the stages around these parts for decades while opening up for the Charlie Daniels Band and Blackfoot along the way. They also inspired their protegé to write a song about them ("Grey-Haired Rockstar"), which they say is about perseverance and following dreams, even if you have a bum finger (or, like Rasberry and Bowersox, diabetes). Especially if you have those challenges.
The upper reaches of the walls were lined with hand-drawn caricatures of regulars with names like Snoopy, Weasel, Dan the Man and Dogg, and there were a half-dozen old friends and supporters wearing the homemade Bowersox T-shirts that are being sold as fundraisers for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. A flattened bit of cardboard that used to be part of a beer case hung on a pillar near the stage, signed by several dozen Vietnam vets as one of several tributes in the joint to POW-MIAs from that war.
This is where Bowersox got her start as a pre-teen. It's where owner Tim Stahl gave Crystal the old lamp she built into a microphone stand that she's been using on the show. That's just another part of her hometown she has taken with her — along with the lessons she learned watching guys like Ron and Bob.
On the other side of the river in the more freshly scrubbed suburb of Maumee (which might as well be another planet) lies the Village Idiot, where Bowersox played on Monday nights for more than a year before making it to "Idol." After watching Tuesday night's performance show, her pal Nate Woodward, a chef and bartender at the Idiot, recalled putting his feet up on the low stage while she was playing late last year after she'd spilled the beans that she had auditioned for "Idol." He presented the bottom of his shoes to her, snapped a series of close-up photos and warned, "You gotta get used to it, hon!"
There's music seven nights a week at the Idiot, ranging from local cover acts like Polka Floyd to national bands like the Deadstring Brothers. It's more upscale than Papa's, to be sure, but still has that same funky, bohemian vibe, from the trippy pig-nosed court jester logo to the suit of armor sitting in a dark corner up in the balcony, the giant posters of bob Dylan and the criss-crossing strands of Christmas lights that hang overhead. It's the kind of bar you might graduate to if you're the kind of kid who started playing bars when you were still tooling around town on your bicycle.
Instead of Harley vests and grizzled beards (okay, except for the monumental facial hair sported by the Idiot's inviting manager, Sully), the Maumee spot is filled with groups of freshly scrubbed girlfriends, older couples and twenty-somethings out for a few drinks and a peek at their hometown favorite.
As different as they are, her friends say both spots are a crucial part of what makes Crystal who she is. "What you see is what she's about," said Stahl. "That's Crystal up there — the same one who played here."