More than 1,000 miles separate the Wikwemikong Native American reservation in Ontario, Canada, from the country music capital of Nashville, but Crystal Shawanda has been making the trip faithfully for years. Those travels paid off Tuesday (Aug. 19) with the release of Dawn of a New Day, her first album for RCA Nashville.
During her teenage years, making her way to Music City wasn't an easy task. Accompanying her truck driver father, she made the trek south with the special request of stopping at Nashville's world famous honky-tonk, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. Years shy of the legal age to even enter a bar, Shawanda summoned the courage to approach the club's manager and asked if she could sing. After getting the OK, she performed, and what followed was a standing ovation.
"I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," she said after sharing this story during an interview at CMT's offices in Nashville. "I didn't have the means for my parents to just pick up and move to Nashville, even though it's something they would have done in a heartbeat if they had the money. It wasn't an option."
To make things worse, the school she attended on Manitoulin Island, a locale on Lake Huron, didn't even offer a music program.
"That summer I sang at Tootsies when I was 13, I knew right then and there if I want to come back, I've got a lot of homework to do and a lot of research to do," she said. "I felt like if I went to a high school with no music program ... that would be holding me back and I wouldn't be able to evolve musically and creatively."
Therefore, Shawanda left the reservation to spend her high school years four and a-half hours away from home in one of Ontario's largest cities, Sault Ste. Marie.
"You can choose to stay on the reserve and do something that serves your community or places a purpose in your community," she said, "Or you can go out into the world and find your place out there." With support from her parents, Shawanda chose the latter.
Her music offered a passageway from the daunting atmosphere of life on the reservation. By the time she turned 10, sorrow and death had already become a constant factor in her life.
"It wasn't normal deaths," she said. "It was like suicides and alcohol related deaths, car accidents, drownings, things like that. Things that are shocking to a person -- especially a young person." But music gave her the hope and inspiration to carry on. "It was my freedom," she said in explaining her way of connecting with the world and dealing with heartache.
But even after she moved to Nashville and maintained a regular gig at Tootsie's, finding musical acceptance wasn't always easy. She was told by a music industry executive that there simply wasn't room for Native Americans in country music. Nevertheless, Shawanda continued to sing.
"I see it as something that made me stronger in the end, and it made me a fighter" she said. "It also shows me how much -- whether I want to run from it or embrace it -- the responsibility of being one of the first Native Americans to get a major label record deal."
Her constant drive paid off as she was eventually signed to RCA. The title of her album, Dawn of a New Day, means Shawanda in her native Ojibwa language. It's also the title of one of the songs she co-wrote for the project.
"It's sort of become the anthem to my life the past few years," she explained. "Everything may be falling apart today, but in the morning, it's a chance to start over -- a new beginning."
Her current single, "You Can Let Go," shares the story of a young girl letting go of the important men in her life, particularly reminding her of her grandfather who passed away only months ago.
"To be honest, it's a very tough song to sing these days," she said. "[It is] probably the greatest heartache of my life just because he was such a big part of how I ended up in Nashville. I can remember as a little girl, him saying, 'Someday she'll live in Nashville and sing at the Grand Ole Opry.'" Fortunately, this all came true, and her grandfather was able to see her Opry debut on television before he died. "It's all bittersweet," she explained.
And Shawanda did grace the Opry stage, as did the many country music legends before her, including her idol and inspiration, Loretta Lynn.
"If this little Indian girl on this reservation and this little girl in this coal-mining Kentucky town -- if they both grew up the same way and had all this common ground, relating to this beacon of hope -- that's what country music was for them," she said. "It made me realize how small the world really was and how we're all more the same than we are different."
With serious stories to tell and a serious songs to sing, Crystal Shawanda has found her saving grace in country music and continues to sing with the same strong convictions as when she first began.
"I really figured that out at Tootsies," she said. "I can't stand up and sing every day and just go through the motions. I've got to do it like I mean it because I'm listening. Who cares if nobody else is listening. God's listening. I'm listening."