Native singer breaks through Country market

By Sandra Hale Schulman
Nashville, Tennessee (NFIC) 10-08

Here is some good news and some bad news about breakthrough RCA Nashville recording artist Crystal Shawanda.

The good news: her album, Dawn Of A New Day, entered the Billboard Country Albums Chart late August at #16, making Shawanda the highest charting full-blooded Native American country artist in the SoundScan era. The album features her emotional debut single and Top 20 hit, “You Can Let Go,” which continues to climb the country radio charts. She made her Opry debut in mid-September and met her idol Loretta Lynn.

Michael McCall of The Associated Press writes “Dawn Of A New Day suggests Nashville has discovered another strong female vocalist capable of establishing her own point of view.”

The bad news: Instead of really letting this lovely, unusual, full-of-stories-straight-from-the-rez girl let her true roots and colors shine, producer Scott Hendricks – a Nashville good ol’ boy and Music Row old guard – saddled her with the typical overblown production and same 5 or 10 songwriters that write the same songs for Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, etc. And it takes at least 3 to 5 songwriters to write one song. Something is just wrong with that if you have a talented artist with some vision and stories who knows herself way better than the Nashville scribes who sit in rooms all day and churn out songs like they’re on an assembly line. Any of them ever been to a reservation?

“Growing up, I watched my family find comfort particularly in country music, and I always wanted to be that for someone else.”

Now, the problem with major labels in Nashville is that it’s their way or the highway. Shawanda co-wrote three of the songs, but none address her Native roots. Maybe with some more clout under her belt she can write what she really wants and get with fellow Nashvillian Bill Miller or Marcus Hummon (who wrote the stunning musical Warrior about Jim Thorpe) or even Lynn herself, who made a roaring comeback with an album of originals a few years ago.

Shawanda grew up on the Wikwemikong Reservation on Canada’s Manitoulin Island where she and her family found daily comfort and hope through music. In Ojibwe, Shawanda means “Dawn of a New Day,” and a new day is what music has given Crystal. She is now driven to share her message and her music to those who are in need of hope – just like Loretta Lynn, her lifelong hero, did for Crystal’s mother each day on the reservation.

“Music was always a way of life for me – my way of connecting to the world and understanding it,” explains Crystal. “Growing up, I watched my family find comfort particularly in country music, and I always wanted to be that for someone else.”

A citizen of both the U.S. and Canada, Crystal began performing at the early age of 13 at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where she earned her first standing ovation. After several years of traveling back and forth with her father who drove a truck through Nashville on his North-South run, Crystal began a permanent gig at Tootsie’s at the age of 16. Her powerful, high-energy performances are what landed Crystal her record deal with the RCA Records Label Nashville.

Crystal co-penned several songs on the album, including the title track, “Dawn of a New Day,” “You Can’t Take It Back,” about second chances, and the vulnerable “Tender Side.”

Here is Crystals story in her own words: How many rip yer heart out songs are there in just these few paragraphs?

“I’m Native American,” she says. “We’re automatically country… joined to the land and the real stories of everyday people. A long time ago, we traditionally used music as our daily prayer and as our way of giving thanks. To Native Americans, music is our everything. It’s our storytelling, our history, and our dance. We use it to remember and to forget. It’s how we celebrate life and mourn death.

I wrote my first song at 9, not knowing that songwriting would become my way of coping with the hopelessness I saw around me on the reservation. Growing up, I watched too many people lose hope and leave this earth… including cousins and many friends of mine. I watched as my brothers lost almost every childhood friend before they were 16. But music was my hope. It saved me, and it became a doorway for me to find freedom from the hopelessness that we all felt on the reservation. Loretta Lynn was my childhood hero… and she continues to be that for me today. I grew up watching her be a friend to my mom through her music. Mom would sing along with those records like finally someone understood her. I want to be that for someone. I was born a country music singer. I was driven to sing, and I drove my parents nuts about it.

I’m a citizen of both the U.S. and Canada, though I was born in Ontario and grew up on a reservation called Wikwemikong on Canada’s Manitoulin Island. My daddy drove a truck from Michigan straight through Nashville on his North-South run, so I had a ride whenever they would let me go. I started my trips to Nashville at the age of 11. We stood on the sidewalk in front of Nashville’s famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and watched through the window. I was scared I would be told I wasn’t good enough. By 12, I had written enough songs to do my own little demo album which I sold back home to pay for more trips to Nashville. Country music had become my full time way of relating to my world. If I couldn’t write and sing, I couldn’t talk and feel.

I went twice more by 13, and this time I walked into Tootsie’s. I even asked the singer if I could come up on stage. I sang “Two More Bottles of Wine,” and I noticed the drummer say something to the singer after I finished. I later found out that the drummer told him to let me sing another song. And guess who the drummer was? Nickname: “Sticks.” He had been Loretta Lynn’s drummer for years. I have always said, “You have to wait for the good to come.” For me, the good came that day. My second song was “Stand by Me,” and when I finished it and looked up, the crowd at Tootsie’s was standing and applauding… for me. Sticks told me later, “I never heard a girl sing that song like that.”


Next trip, Sticks saw me walk in the door and I was on stage within minutes. I couldn’t believe he remembered me after all that time. When I got on that stage, it felt like coming home. After I sang, the owner of Tootsie’s offered me a gig. I could barely breathe. But I had to tell him no. I still had too much to learn. But that was my moment… once again… when the good came. I could then say out loud what I had known all my life… that I am a country singer. And I knew then, for the first time, that going back to the reservation was only temporary. I could feel it inside.

When I was 14, my dad and mom both came with me on three trips to Nashville. We sometimes slept in the truck because we didn’t have the money for a real motel. I started getting requests for “Two More Bottles of Wine” and “Me & Bobby McGee.” But this time when I got back to the “rez,” I saw what was happening to the young people… people my age. They were losing hope. No work, no money, no hope. They were giving up on their dreams. They were escaping into alcohol or losing themselves so totally to hopelessness that they sometimes took their own lives. Within the community, we have known death too many times. We hurt together; we mourn together. So many people in my life have passed away… and I’m only 26. Someone once told me I sing like I was born with a broken heart, but I earned that. My music is what saved me. It is my lifeline. And I want to share it with anyone who is without hope and dreams. Desperation is desperation, no matter whether you live on the reservation or in the ghetto or in the suburbs.

There are several overriding themes in my life that keep me sane.

One: My mother never taught me I’m different… so I don’t believe people are different. We’re so much more the same than different.

Two: Wait for the good to come. Never lose hope.

Three: Music is my lifeline to my family, my world, and my soul. It is my prayer.

Four: I’m learning to be strong enough to share myself, to talk about what hurts.

I stomp my feet when I sing. I only started doing that when I stopped holding back my feelings. Now I release everything into the song. One time I stomped so much at Tootsie’s that my boot heel got stuck in the floor and I couldn’t get it out. Finally, I pulled so hard that the bottom piece of my stiletto heel came off in the floor. The floors at Tootsie’s are that old!

Shawanda means “Dawn of a New Day.” Sometimes on the rez, a new day is what we needed. Music gave me that. I sing music to free myself. My name and my dream are the same.

Keep it up Crystal, and maybe next time your music will be as good as your story.