May 31, 2010 12:00 PM

CRYSTAL BOWERSOX

TOLEDO, OHIO

After a manic May 14 morning of radio station stops, autograph signings and a hometown parade, Crystal Bowersox couldn’t wait to hit Papa’s Tavern in Toledo, where she used to play for $100 a night. On the tiny stage the 24-year-old mom belted out some Tracy Chapman for the regulars before shedding grateful tears for all the familiar faces. “She’s our baby, and she’s come home,” says longtime patron Alberta Smithson. Hours later thousands of roaring Ohioans at the Ottawa County Fairgrounds chanted Crystal’s name, clearly feeling the same kinship. Says resident Steve Fought: “Unemployment’s high, and people need something to hold onto.” So did Mama Sox, who toted her son Tony, 16 months, throughout much of her whirlwind day, even cradling him while performing the national anthem at a Toledo Mud Hens baseball game. “The whole day was great,” says Bowersox. “It touched my heart.”

LEE DEWYZE

MOUNT PROSPECT, ILLINOIS

Before facing 41,000 fans at Arlington Park Racetrack on May 14, Lee DeWyze paced anxiously. “I don’t want to disappoint them,” he said, his eyes welling as they clamored for him. After drinking a beer to calm down, the rocker got stuck in an elevator on the way to the stage. “I felt like I’d throw up,” he tells PEOPLE of his preshow jitters. Onstage, DeWyze was overcome by emotion as the crowd clapped in unison. He was equally moved during his parade and while visiting his alma mater. “All I did was push myself,” DeWyze, 24, tearfully told students at Forest View District 214 High. Not that DeWyze didn’t have a few laughs: At Mount Prospect Paints, where he once worked, he showed off his mixing skills. He also threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game. “This was the most amazing experience,” says DeWyze. “I couldn’t ask for more.”

CASEY JAMES

COOL, TEXAS

As a child in Cool, Texas, with no running water, heat or air-conditioning, Casey James slept on the floor with his brother Billy and mom Debra, who worked two jobs while going to college. “My father wasn’t part of the picture, and hard times bonded Mom, Billy and I close forever,” says James, 27. So who better to cheer him on as he got keys to Fort Worth and Weatherly on May 14, or sing with him at Millsap High the next day? Mother and son also cried together when they visited Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth Hospital, where James recovered from a serious motorcycle wreck six years ago. “Thank you for saving my life,” James told his doctors and nurses, hugging each one. “I’m still rocking and rolling because of the love I feel today,” James tells PEOPLE. “It rejuvenated my soul.”

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