Considering most country artists who roll off the Nashville assembly line smell every bit as prefab as Taylor Swift, it's refreshing that Crystal Shawanda's story would impress no less than Loretta Lynn.
Like the Butcher Hollow, Kentucky–raised Coal Miner's Daughter, Shawanda grew up in abject poverty, spending her formative years on the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in Northeastern Ontario. And like Lynn, she saw music as a way out, packing up and heading to Nashville while she was still in her teens. Today, the 26-year-old singer-guitarist's debut disc, Dawn of a New Day, has landed her a Juno nomination and the opening slot on Brad Paisley's current stadium tour. For that, she is grateful to her parents, whom she credits with giving her a musical foundation that differs from many of those on the reserve.
“Visiting my home community, I see there are a lot of young people into music,” Shawanda says, on the line from Music City, where she's now based. “I find it interesting that they are drawn to punk and harder music as a way to get out their anger. As long as they are getting it out of their system, that's a much healthier way than drugs and alcohol. Personally, though, I was drawn to country music because that's what my family listened to. Even as a child, I used to watch them sing along to a song when it would come on, and all of a sudden they would have a different look on their faces.”
Taking a cue from the Carter Family, Shawanda committed early on to keeping on the sunny side of life, even when things looked less than promising. This would include her arrival in Nashville, only to discover the city has just as many aspiring songwriters tending bar as Los Angeles does wannabe-actors waiting tables.
“There were good days, and then plenty of bad days where I'd be playing down on Broadway where the bar was empty, the tip jar was empty, and, on top of everything, people were coming up and saying awful things,” Shawanda recalls. “That was the awful thing about playing honky-tonks, which I did a lot of. You'd get hecklers....Those were the days where I had to dig deep to hold on.”
It's when Shawanda goes back to the reserve that she truly feels like she's accomplished something with Dawn of a New Day, a polished, modern country-radio-ready collection of songs that showcases the singer's powerful pipes. Even if she's got a ways to go before she makes the world forget about Shania Twain, Terri Clark, or, for that matter, Loretta Lynn, Shawanda is already a star in the community she grew up in.
“I had my first annual homecoming concert this past summer,” she says. “We were hoping, because we announced it three days before, for 300 people. It blew us away when 2,000 showed up in the field on my family's property.”
Crystal Shawanda opens for Brad Paisley at GM Place on Tuesday (February 24).