I'm Native American. 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 “res,” 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 25. 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 res, 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.
Copyright © 2008 Crystal Shawanda.
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