Using gospel music as a blueprint for a pop song will pretty much guarantee you a gorgeous song. Crystal Bowersox and her co-writer Steve Seskin probably knew this going into writing “Courage To Be Kind” because what they ended up is a glorious single that has the power to uplift and entertain with a message of unity and love. “Courage To Be Kind” is a stunning dazzler of a gospel-based pop song… and its message? Love and unity, of course.
“Love must always win,” Bowersox says, reflecting on this ditty she’s premiering today with American Songwriter. “I think the most difficult choice we can make while looking into the eyes of hate, adversity and divisiveness is to show kindness and compassion. Not one among us is perfect, but I think kindness and mindfulness are practices we need to be striving for. It will leave room to realize that we have so much more in common than what divides us.”
Written a few years ago, “Courage To Be Kind” was Bowersox and Seskin’s musical response to the horrific, racially-motivated mass murder of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Surprising all those except the truly devout, the families of the deceased chose to forgive the 21 year-old gunman instead of condemning him. “Steve and I were incredibly moved by the words of the victims’ family members immediately following the seemingly unforgivable acts,” she explains. “The forgiveness and compassion they chose to give to the very person who stole their loved ones from them was highly controversial but intensely powerful.”
“Courage To be Kind” braids two well-known stories into one narrative—the aforementioned Charleston massacre and the Synagogue in Victoria, TX, that welcomed its Islamic neighbors when their mosque was burned in 2017 (“They said you’re welcome here, come and worship as you are / It don’t matter if there’s five or six points on your star,” she sings). Bowersox preaches harmony and solidarity amid pain, yet does so without a heavy hand.
“I’ve gone through several different scenarios in my mind, wondering what I would do in each of them, and the pain from simply imagining that sort of situation becomes too much for me to bear,” she says, wondering if she’d be as merciful. “I remember watching Felicia Sanders speak so eloquently about forgiveness the very next day after her son Tywana was stolen from her, while knowing that the murderer (whose name I refuse to mention) showed little remorse… I don’t know what I would do, to be perfectly honest. I’d like to think that I would be able to forgive in the way that they did.”
Getting her start as a celebrated runner-up on the ninth season of American Idol, Bowersox’s actual story begins well before she took a foot onto the brightly-lit televised stage. A farmgirl from NW Ohio at the start, she remembers “running down the lane with my Mother’s beat up guitar to the woods on the back of our property. No sounds other than the natural world around me. No neighbors within shouting distance. No horns or sirens.” Self-taught and ambitious, she longed to escape the tiny town.
Taking a fateful and life-altering plunge, she moved to Chicago and fortuitously found her home “in neighborhoods that people on the Northside would’ve called ‘dangerous’ or ‘off limits’,” she recalls. “Some of the first recordings I made were down near 95th in a house that had plywood windows and holes in the ceiling. I was usually the only white girl, with locked hair down to my ass, nonetheless,” she smiles. “And yet, near strangers took me in, fed me, laughed with me – just the same as their own. It always stuck with me how much love there was in a place where some would just write off and say that it just wouldn’t be possible to find love there.”
Channeling that love into nearly everything she does these days, Bowersox is always looking to be of service wherever she is needed. “As disappointing as it is financially, I’m quite relieved to be home this long,” she says of being in isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic. “I haven’t spent this much consecutive time with my son in his 11 years of life. It’s nice to be in one place and to have an opportunity to sit in the stillness of it all. I’ve been writing some but not forcing anything. I’ve been sewing masks for hospitals and people who are at high risk for COVID. I’ve been crafting things in my garage… [and] exploring my other passion of photography.“
But music is still (and always will be) part of her life plan. “My hopes are that the world will be back to some sort of safe level of normalcy by the time the full album [Hitchhiker which is due this fall] is released, but even if it isn’t, it’s all good,” she concludes, promoting again that love and unity. “I just want folks to listen to it and know how much heart and soul was poured into making this album. If it changes someone’s life, their heart, or their mind, my work is done.”