This article originally appeared in the May/June 2011 print issue as the cover story.
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“Country music is truly music for everyone,” said Tim McGraw, as he and his wife Faith Hill prepared to announce the Country Music Association’s 2009 “Entertainer of the Year” award. “And that’s never been more apparent than with the diversity of tonight’s nominees.”
It was a line meant to acknowledge the presence of one nominee in particular, one fresh face among a field of perennial contenders: There was Kenny Chesney, who had won the genre’s most prestigious award the previous three years, and two-time winner George Strait. There was Keith Urban, a one-time winner and Brad Paisley, a three-time “Male Vocalist of the Year.”
And then there was a girl. A girl who, at age 19, just happened to be the youngest artist ever nominated for the award – and the first female solo artist to be nominated since Faith Hill was so honored nine long years before.
Taylor Swift’s hands flew up to cover her face as Hill announced her name. The crowd at Nashville’s Sommet Center erupted in applause. Swift stood up, looking genuinely stunned, and fellow nominee (and reigning champion) Chesney approached from a couple of seats away with a congratulatory hug and a kiss on the cheek. And then, the lanky teenager with the long blonde curls walked up the pathway to the podium, where she accepted country music’s most prestigious award from the man who her career-launching debut single was named after.
It was a perfect, full-circle moment – like the kind that happens in hope-inspiring movies about people’s dreams coming true. But while Swift’s rise to the pinnacle of country music stardom may seem like something from a Hollywood script – with that rise culminating in her unprecedented “Entertainer of the Year” victory just three years after the release of her debut album – the story of her journey to that moment contains less glitter and glamour than you might expect.
“It didn’t happen like it does in the movies,” Swift says. “I look back and it seems like hundreds of thousands of tiny baby steps that lead to that moment.”
It’s often assumed that there’s something inherently manufactured about teenage stars who achieve incredible success, and that whatever genuine talent they possess has certainly been augmented and polished and manipulated in order to create a mass-marketable teen idol. But to whatever extent that process is a music industry reality, Taylor Swift is no product of it.
Swift was just 11 years old when she first convinced her parents to take her Nashville – bearing CDs that featured her voice singing popular country songs over karaoke tracks – after watching a VH1 special about Faith Hill. She walked up and down Music Row while her mom and little brother waited in the car, introducing herself and spelling out her demands. “I’m Taylor Swift,” she’d say. “And I want a record deal.”
The response she received was less than encouraging.
“I went back home after that trip,” she says. “And I realized that everyone in that town wanted to do what I wanted to do. So, I kept thinking to myself, I need to figure out a way to be different. I need to have something to really bring to that town.”
Swift retreated to the Pennsylvania Christmas tree farm where she was raised, and she started learning how to play the guitar. She also started writing songs, and found that it came naturally to her. And when she returned to Nashville the next time, a little over a year later, she was armed with an arsenal of her own material. One of those songs, “The Outside,” even made it onto her first album.