MAUMEE, Ohio — This time last year, Nathan Woodward could step out of the kitchen at the Village Idiot bar/ pizza restaurant and walk right up to the front of the stage to watch Crystal Bowersox perform. Now, even when he flies out to Los Angeles to see her rock the stage on "American Idol," he can't get nearly as close as he could back in the good old pre-fame days of 2009.

Woodward, 36, met Bowersox two years ago at the Idiot, where he bartends and makes pizzas on the weekend and where, on a recent Tuesday night, he was sitting in on organ with the house band after a crowd gathered to cheer Bowersox on during the Frank Sinatra-themed performance night.

"I was working in the back making pizzas, and I heard this awesome voice, and I went out and I actually said to the bartender working there, 'Who is this?' " recalled Woodward, who stood behind the bar next to Frankie May, Bowersox's old friend and bass player, to watch that night's performances.

"I had to come out from the back of the kitchen because, when I heard her sing, I got goose bumps," he said. "We have a lot of good bands come through here, and when somebody stands out like that, you have to go say to the other employees, 'This is awesome. We've really got something here. It's spectacular.' "

From that point on, Woodward and Bowersox became good friends, and he did his best to encourage other people to come out and listen to her sing. "Toledo is a weird town. ... We have really good bands in here, and a lot of times nobody shows up," he said of the Idiot, which has music every night of the week, alternating between local bands and national acts who take to the low stage in front of a tall window that faces the picturesque downtown streets of the Toledo suburb. "So when she played here [and] there was nobody in the bar — there'd be eight, 10 people — we would call people and say, 'You have gotta come in here and see her play. She's amazing.' " Even with those calls, though, Woodward said the crowds never even approached the 50 to 60 people who showed up on Tuesday night to cheer Bowersox on.

Though they've stayed in touch over the years, and he took her to see Phish when she lived in Chicago — as well as going out to L.A. to see her on "Idol" in April — Woodward said seeing his friend on the biggest show on TV is still a mind-bender.

"[It's] the most incredible thing you can imagine," he said. "It's like, it doesn't ... it's surreal. It's not that I see somebody I know being a superstar; it's seeing somebody I know doing something really, really great and the way that she fights back with the judges, it's totally her, it's her personality. She's like, 'Take me or leave me.' It's really cool."

What you see of Bowersox on TV is what you get, and that's exactly the same person Woodward got to know. He described Crystal as a sweet, nice person who will not hesitate to tell you exactly what she thinks, which is why he relishes her back-and-forth with the judges every week. "I think that's what makes her so great, and I think that's one of the reasons why she's doing well on the show," he said of her feisty personality. "I think the reason the audience is reacting the way they are is because they see somebody who is just a genuine person going out there with a great voice and singing great songs and doing the best thing that she can."

Even after backing her up for much of last year — including numerous Village Idiot shows — and doing some studio sessions with her, bass player Frankie May is also a bit stunned at how far his friend has come. "I never doubted that she had the talent to do it," said May, 28, a quiet, intense musician with a bald head, chin piercing and intense eyes whose father, Bob May, is one of Bowersox's musical mentors. "But everyone was saying that she's not that bold ... and she's kinda breaking it, and it's a wonderful thing."

May said he texts with Bowersox and talks to her on the phone pretty regularly, and while they don't talk much about "Idol," he can tell that despite missing her toddler son and her denials of reported cold feet about staying on the show, she's aware of what a great opportunity the show is for a young single mother. "She's sticking with it. ... She's strong," he said.

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