Crystal Bowersox arrived for the ninth season of "American Idol" with one huge advantage, something most "Idol" contestants rarely possess: She had a life. She'd done some serious living already -- suffered abuse at the hands of her mother growing up in Ohio, struggled as a busking musician in Chicago's CTA stations and was bringing up a child as a single mother. She had real emotions to tap into, not just facial expressions and throaty crescendos crafted by a vocal coach. She had something to sing about. Even in the covers she was mandated to select on the show, you could tell -- this girl's seen something of life, maybe something like mine or yours.
Her national CD debut, "Farmer's Daughter," out today, is an unusual "Idol" album for those reasons.
Musically it feels just as carefully crafted and middle-of-the-road as any "Idol" contestant's first CD. Lyrically, though, it's remarkably personal. Several of the songs pre-date her second-place showing on America's greatest televised diversion, like the beautiful and soft "Mason" (written with Brian Walker, whom she married in October at Chicago's Uncommon Ground) and the title track.
Label honchos pushed hard to release "Hold On" as a first single, a song written by "Idol" judge and professional songwriter Kara DioGuardi and Nickelback's Chad Kroeger. Soak up that sentence, and you can imagine exactly what the song sounds like: crescendo-by-numbers, insert-verse-A-into-chorus-B, radio-ready vagueness. Bowersox fought back and, go figure, won.
The title track is the first single, a real-life, warts-and-all country ballad with impressive soul and vulnerability. "This time is the last time you're going to see us around," she sings -- to her mother. "This was the last chance to prove you wouldn't let me down / So go on, get gone and get away from here." The fact that she gets to greet the world with her own words instead of the "Idol" machine's is a victory worth toasting. That it's such a good song is worth finishing the bottle.
The album charges out of the stereo with "Ridin' With the Radio," an old-fashioned, full-throttle car song, of all things, with a harmonica blowing hard and Bowersox singing, "Whatever became of rhythm and blues and soul? ... The sh-- they play now, it just don't feel like it should." She's not immune from playing some of the music she criticizes, though. "Farmer's Daughter" suffers from several more hefty helpings of the by-numbers songcraft. It's not difficult to sing along on first listen; she telegraphs a lot of swells and choruses.
Her famed gutsy voice receives its deserved showcase, but it also wears after a while. Sometimes, it's just too much -- "Holy Toledo," for instance, mercilessly flogs the bombast, with Bowersox lunging for another round of vocal punches when the refrain has already been beaten to death. Her instrument can also be a weapon, but in time that should provide her the means to begin dethroning some of her peers.