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NASHVILLE (Billboard) - Crystal Shawanda, whose surname means "dawn of a new day," is a full-blooded Ojibwa and was born and raised on a reservation in Ontario, Canada. But the singer-songwriter calls her move to Nashville "inevitable."
"I grew up on nothing but country music, and not just listening to it, but listening to the stories," she says. "My grandpa and my dad and my mom were constantly talking about the Grand Ole Opry. They would tell me stories about how people would sneak across the alley behind the Grand Ole Opry to have a couple beers down at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Broadway. I couldn't wait to jump in and be a part of it."
Shawanda left for Nashville at age 16, and after moving back and forth for five years, she opted to stay no matter what. "I decided that I wasn't moving to Nashville to get a record deal -- I was moving here because I just wanted to sing," she says. "And if in 15 years I'm still singing for tips on Broadway, then it's a good life. It beats cleaning toilets."
While performing one night at the very club she'd heard about in her family's stories, Shawanda was approached by producer Scott Hendricks -- who has worked with artists including Trace Adkins. She was impressed when he said he thought he could get her a record deal, but she also was cautious.
"I made him come back to my show every day for two weeks, and we would talk before and after the show about music," she recalls. "It was really important that he got to know me as a person and as an artist."
Signed to Sony BMG Nashville's RCA label, Shawanda is being promoted on both sides of the border. Her album has sold 2,100 units since its June 24 Canadian release, after debuting at No. 39 on the Nielsen SoundScan Top Albums chart in Canada and at No. 2 on the SoundScan Top Country Albums chart in that country.
The first U.S. single, "You Can Let Go," is No. 32 after 16 weeks on Hot Country Songs; her album is due south of the border August 19.
When Shawanda made her Opry debut in August 2007, her family was in attendance. "How do you describe a moment you have been waiting for your entire life?" said says. "Afterwards, I came offstage and immediately started blubbering."