Since her debut on both the Canadian and American country charts, it has been obvious that Crystal Shawanda could sing.
Recording largely formulistic, and at times bombastic, country-pop, Shawanda found limited success as a mainstream country singer, touring in support of Brad Paisley across Canada, for example, and ‘almost’ hitting the Country Top Twenty a decade ago with the rather ‘over the top’ emotionally-rife “You Can Let Go.” Still, Dawn of a New Day showed promise and—looking back—“My Roots Are Showing” hinted at the direction Shawanda would eventually follow.
Going the route of independence has proven artistically significant for Shawanda, who released a more personal set of music with Just Like You, but the album’s singles didn’t get significant traction at country radio. The album did garner Shawanda a well-deserved Juno Award as Best Aboriginal Album in 2013.
More recently, she has redefined herself as a blues-rock singer, and this seems to be the genre where she is most comfortable. The Whole World’s Got the Blues was a more than impressive collection of blues standards and original material, including the steaming, self-penned title track and “I’m Not Your Baby.” Revealing herself as an honest blues belter, Shawanda also remained true to her roots. Included on the album was the evocative and powerful rocker “Pray Sister Pray” as a call-to-action for the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women of Canada.
Fish Out of Water continued Shawanda’s foray into southern blues sounds, with both title track and “When You Rise” showcasing her ability to get to the gritty roots of the music while “Laid Back” showed a softer, more satisfied and companionable side.
Voodoo Woman was released late in 2017, but is only now hitting radio. It is a one hell of a blues album, loaded with memorable vocal performances.
Recording a set of covers for the first time, Shawanda revisits the music that inspired her as a child growing up on Manitoulin Island. Influenced by her brother’s listening habits, the blues spoke to Shawanda—as they do to many of us—as unvarnished reflections of troubled lives.
Somewhat playfully, a hybrid of “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Smokestack Lightning” opens the album, but Shawanda hits her mark from the start. “I’ll Always Love You” previously appeared on The Whole World’s Got the Blues, and in this new rendition is as powerful as a heartfelt, blues ballad can be. Janis Joplin’s, via Big Mama Thornton, “Ball and Chain” is given a fiery arrangement, with a much appreciated extended saxophone break.
Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”—known to many as the melody for Chris Stapleton’s version of “Tennessee Whiskey”—is an undisputed showstopper, but so are most of these familiar numbers. Co-producer (with Shawanda) Dewayne Stobel, one believes, provides the lead guitar licks, and these are consistently impressive across the album, but maybe just a little more so on the rump-twitchin’ “Trouble” and closing “Blue Train/Smokestack Lightning Revisited.”
Personally, Shawanda’s version of “Misty Blue” is stellar. Written as a country song and a hit for both Wilma Burgessand Eddy Arnold (and later, again for Billie Jo Spears), Dorothy Moore’s 1976 version of the song was likely the first soul/R&B song I fell in love with: I’m discriminating in what I will accept when a singer comes back to this beautifully crafted song. Shawanda further demonstrates her vocal range on this number, pulling back the growl and grit to provide the song with the sensitivity and ‘wanting’ required. Truly masterful.
Voodoo Woman reveals Crystal Shawanda as a blues performer of significance. The musicianship is excellent, the production crisp. And, most importantly, Crystal Shawanda can sing. Give her another listen: you will be missing something important if you don’t.