"American Idol" contestant Crystal Bowersox, of Elliston, Ohio, sings to the crowd gathered for a concert in downtown Toledo, Ohio on Friday. Behind Crystal is the mascot for the minor league baseball team the Toledo Mudhens.
TOLEDO, Ohio -- The last time Crystal Bowersox appeared on stage near her hometown, she was singing to empty bar stools and playing for tips.
Those days are over. Thousands of fans lined downtown streets Friday and squeezed onto rooftops and parking garages to get a glimpse of the bluesy, dreadlocked singer whose cool stage presence has made her one of three finalists on "American Idol."
Even the normally unflappable Bowersox seemed taken aback by the crowd gathered to her hear sing.
"Holy Toledo!" she shouted.
The 24-year-old musician and mother of a young son was the center of attention across the state's northwestern corner at two parades and a pair of mini-concerts, one near her small hometown of Elliston.
The other finalists, Lee Dewyze of Mount Prospect, Ill., and Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, returned to their hometowns for celebrations Friday, with footage from all the events to air next week on "Idol."
One of those final three will be cut next week from the Fox singing competition, with this season's winner crowned on May 26.
Bowersox giggled and gave a salute to several hundred people crammed onto the decks of a parking garage. "I'm just trying to take it in," she said, a bit surprised by the outpouring.
She sang two songs at her first stop: an original she wrote called "Holy Toledo" and Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket."
Bowersox, who was diagnosed with diabetes in the second grade, spotted a sign in the crowd promoting juvenile diabetes research. "Diabetics in the house!" she said with a smile.
She had a scare in early March when she was hospitalized for the condition and was nearly forced to leave the show. But producers switched the order of the semifinal performance at the last minute, giving her an extra day to come back and earn raves.
Bowersox's story of being a single mother who struggled to make a living has struck just the right chord with fans on her home turf. The area's been hit hard by auto industry and manufacturing layoffs in recent years and the unemployment rate has stayed around 13 percent, well above the national average.
"Our city needs this right now," said Sara Blakely, a 26-year-old student who lost her job as a restaurant manager this year.
"It's given people something to smile about," added Becky Zaborski, who works in Toledo and lives in Petersburg, Mich.
Kelly Kreger brought her 11-year-old son to see his favorite singer, even though it was a school day. "He just begged me," Kreger explained.
Many in the crowd said what they like most about Bowersox is that she's down-to-earth.
"She seems just like us," Kreger said, adding that she can identify with Bowersox' earthy, humble roots.
Bowersox got her start playing in coffeehouses and singing karaoke with her mother. By age 14, she was on stage by herself in ramshackle bars, playing original songs for factory workers.
The owner of one of her favorite hangouts, Papa's Tavern, shook his head and laughed when he looked at a photo of Bowersox playing on a concrete patio behind his bar last Memorial Day.
"She made fifty bucks that day," said Tim Stahl. "She's gonna make a lot more now."