"That’s Sam’s house, the one with the boat in the driveway. He’s the guy who made the unfortunate error of cheating on a songwriter. Big Mistake.”
Taylor Swift, the extravagantly blond, improbably blue-eyed, intimidatingly leggy 18-year-old star is sitting in the driver’s seat of her Lexus SC430, idling outside a two-story house on a serene side street in her hometown of Hendersonville, Tennessee. Hendersonville is a suburb of 40,000 that stretches along the northern shoreline of scenic Old Hickory Lake, just outside Nashville. There are a couple of gaudy strips near the turnpike, packed with malls and chain restaurants, but in general, it’s a lovely, leafy place, with pretty homes set back from well-manicured lawns on pleasant little streets and culs-de-sac. A bit farther outside town, the landscape turns horse-country bucolic, and the houses get much, much bigger. Swift, who offered to show Blender around Hendersonville, has already piloted the Lexus past Roy Orbison’s old mansion and a sprawling compound that once belonged to Johnny Cash.
Now, in the more middle-class section of town, we make the first stop on Taylor’s Hendersonville Boy Tour. We’re in front of Sam’s, the rake who prompted Swift to write the revenge ballad “Should’ve Said No,” one of the preternaturally catchy songs on her self-titled debut album. Not far away lives Drew, another ex, now off at college, who inspired two of Swift’s monster hits, her wistful debut single, “Tim McGraw,” about a thwarted summer romance between a couple who share the same favorite singer, and 2007’s No. 1 country smash “Our Song.” Swift pulls her car over. “I took my prom pictures in that backyard. I’ve totally moved on. Drew’s a great guy, but we’re not really in touch. His girlfriend”—Swift pauses for emphasis—“she’s not much of a Taylor Swift fan.”
She chuckles. “The cool thing about being a songwriter is, whatever you go through, you can write a song about it and turn it into something good for your career.”
Some teenagers pour their hearts out in diaries or on their MySpace pages. Taylor Swift has a little MySpace page of her own, of course—it recently clicked past 39 million plays. But not many teens can justifiably refer to themselves in the third person, and fewer still immortalize their confessions and crushes in hit songs. She wrote or co-wrote all of her debut, and each track is melodic and witty in its description of homeroom crushes or sneaking out late with a boyfriend. Swift excels at the Drew Songs (sweetly sentimental) as well as the Sam Songs (spiked with venom). She’s the poet laureate of 10th-grade relationships, from first kisses to kiss-offs.
Her debut, Taylor Swift, released by the upstart indie label Big Machine, has sold more than 2.5 million copies, thanks to an unmistakably Generation Y sound that mixes the admissions and complaints of emo—and even a little hip-hop swagger—with plucked banjos and sawing fiddles. She plays country, the last genre that actually sells records, but her songs also have pop appeal, and Universal Music, which distributes Big Machine, crossed over “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “Our Song” to Top 40 radio this winter.
Although this five-foot-eleven teenager with a cute overbite looks like she should still be on the cheerleading squad, she’s not only proven her songwriting skills, she’s also honed a crack live show while opening for stars twice her age, including Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.
Her songs may have been born in high school hallways, but their dramatics also resound with adults. Brad Paisley tells Blender, “I was looking at a lot of artists to come out on tour with us, but as soon as I downloaded her album, I knew we had to have her. I was floored by the songwriting. I love the fact that she doesn’t pretend to be 30 years old in her songs. She has a very genuine voice.” In November, she won the CMA Horizon Award—Nashville’s official welcome-to-the-A-list prize—and in February she attended the Grammys, where she presented an award, was a nominee for Best New Artist and chatted up Timbaland and Flo Rida.
It’s safe to say there has never before been a teenage bombshell beloved by the big-hat crowd, with a penchant for acoustic Beyoncé and Rihanna covers and a habit of opening her concerts by rapping a few verses of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” While the record industry continues its slow-motion implosion—and the hitmaking princesses of a previous generation stagger from the nightclub to the rehab center—Swift is looking an awful lot like the perfect 21st-century pop star.
Back in Hendersonville, Swift steers her car into the parking lot of the high school she attended for two years before she left to pursue her career full-time. “It’s so weird,” she says. “All these cars belong to my friends. They’re in class; I’m doing a magazine interview. Life is funny.”
Taylor Swift was born on December 13, 1989, in Eastern Pennsylvania, almost 800 miles north of the Grand Ole Opry. She grew up in Wyomissing and in Reading, where her family owned an 11-acre Christmas-tree farm as a secondary business. (Swift’s father, Scott, is a successful stockbroker.) She was always musical, but the eureka moment came when she was 6 and her mother brought home an album by LeAnn Rimes, a 13-year-old country phenom. An obsession was born. “I started listening to female country artists nonstop: Faith Hill, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks. And they led me back to Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette,” she says. “I think it was the storytelling that really grabbed me.” The young Taylor got her first taste of live performance in a local children’s musical-theater company—she played Sandy in Grease and Maria in The Sound of Music—but the influence of her heroines had already seeped into her voice. “My singing sounded a lot more country than Broadway,” she recalls.
Soon, Taylor got her first guitar, practicing “until my fingers bled or my mom called me to dinner.” On weekends, she dragged her parents to karaoke bars and open-mic nights. (Her play list included “Goodbye Earl,” the Dixie Chicks hit about an abused woman who gets murderous revenge.) She also began to write her own songs. And her fascination with country music made her an outcast. “She was shunned,” says her mother, Andrea. “After school, I’d hear what nightmare had occurred that day, what awful thing was done to her. I’d have to pick her up off the floor.” The second song Taylor wrote, when she was 12, was a schoolgirl’s plaint about social ostracism, “The Outside,” which made its way onto her album six years later. “I used to sit in the back of class and watch these people and their interactions and really wish that I could be included,” Swift says. “Part of it was that they were already starting to party at ages 12 and 13—and I was playing at singer-songwriter nights every weekend instead.”
When she was 11, Taylor persuaded her mom to vacation in Nashville, the country-music mecca. “I had a demo CD of me singing karaoke music. We rented a car, and we would pull up in front of a label on Music Row and I’d walk in and talk to the receptionist: ‘Hi, I’m Taylor. I’m 11. I really want a record deal.’”
The receptionists didn’t sign her, but the trip whetted Taylor’s appetite. She began lobbying to relocate to Nashville.
Most parents would view this as a child’s whim, an unrealistic passing fancy—country stars aren’t born to Pennsylvania stockbrokers. Then her lobbying turned to begging and cajoling, and finally, in 2004, the family loaded up the truck and moved to Tennessee, like the Beverly Hillbillies in reverse. “My father had a job he could do from anywhere,” Swift says. “My parents moved across the country so I could pursue a dream.”
The rest is already the stuff of Nashville legend. At age 13, Taylor inked a development deal with RCA. The following year, she signed a songwriting contract with Sony/ATV Music Publishing, becoming perhaps the youngest professional tunesmith in Nashville history. In the mornings, Swift would trundle off to Hendersonville High, where she got straight A’s; in the afternoons, her mother would ferry her, soccer-mom style, to Music Row for her songwriting sessions. Swift teamed up with veteran songwriter Liz Rose, and the pair began churning out material. “My sessions with Taylor were some of the easiest I’ve ever done,” Rose says. “Basically, I was just her editor. She’d write about what happened to her in school that day. She had such a clear vision of what she was trying to say. And she’d come in with some of the most incredible hooks.”
RCA wasn’t so sure. A brief vogue for teen country singers—including Lila McCann, who sang adult love songs even though she wore braces—had peaked, which was probably inevitable in a genre that appeals primarily to women aged 24 to 35. Also, there hadn’t been a new female country star in years: Shania Twain had hidden herself away in a European castle, eating macrobiotic, while Reba McEntire ditched music for a network-TV series. Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta—a relentless, willful executive who’d been fired from Universal despite being the best promotion man in town—pounced after seeing Swift play a few numbers at a songwriter night. “He broke two rules,” says a Nashville executive. “Taylor was a teenager and she was female.”
One afternoon in 2005, Swift brought in a new ballad to play for Rose. The song—a gentle farewell to ex-boyfriend Drew—had a wistful, indelible melody. Even better, it had a surefire gimmick, name-checking one of the biggest country stars on Earth: “When you think Tim McGraw/I hope you think my favorite song/The one we danced to all night long.” There was no question what Swift’s lead single would be. In July 2006, “Tim McGraw” cracked the country Top 10. By the time she finally met her song’s namesake, on May 15, 2007—on live television, following a solo acoustic performance of the hit at the Academy of Country Music Awards—she could greet him as a fellow platinum-selling superstar.
Today, Swift lives with her mom, dad and 16-year-old brother, Austin, in the same rambling McMansion they moved into when they arrived from Pennsylvania. One of her parents always travels with her on tour. Taylor legally became an adult last December, but she is in no hurry to leave the nest. “My parents are the coolest,” she exults. “My mother is so not a momager.”
A visitor to the Swifts’ home would meet a group just like any other affluent suburban family, only far happier and more well-adjusted. There’s a music room, stocked with guitars, recording equipment and framed gold records and awards. But the house has not been turned into the Taylor Swift Hall of Fame and Museum, which may go a long way in explaining Swift’s diva-free affect. The only fancy toy she’s bought with her small fortune is the Lexus.
She recently went to a Nashville Predators hockey game with American Idol alums Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler. “It was really neat,” Pickler hoots. “Total blonde power. After the game, we pulled into a gas station and Carrie saw this guy talking to Taylor. We were like, This isn’t right! I said, ‘Get away from her, you old man. If you’re still around when we finish filling up with gas, we’ll make a hood ornament out of you!’”
Nights like that are rare: Swift prefers to spend what little free time she has with family or hanging out with her best friend, Abigail, a senior at Hendersonville High. Taylor is polite and articulate and funny and self-deprecating—the only time she bristles is when she is reminded that she has occasionally been called “the country Britney Spears.” And who can blame her?
In fact, the only cause for concern is that Swift may be slightly too good, too cautious—career-focused with such an unswerving sense of propriety that she is not acting her age. She confesses that she hasn’t kissed a boy since her album came out nearly two years ago (“I just don’t have the time”) and that she skips parties with her high school friends to avoid any underage scandal that may arise: “There could be drinking there or whatever. Your career could go up in smoke just like that. It’s not worth the risk.” What 18-year-old creates a world that consists entirely of work—and excludes the delights of dating, gossip and keg stands? When will repressed temptations cause her to break out in boils and hives and run naked across the tidy lawns of Hendersonville, calling the names of Sam and Drew?
Not this month, certainly. She has partnered with Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen in a cause that could offend no one: combating Internet sex predators. (“It’s such an important issue,” Swift intones.) She says she plans to vote in November’s presidential election, but when asked if she’s a Democrat or a Republican, you can see the wheels turning, as she searches for the ideal inoffensive non-answer: “I don’t think I’m either.”
Swift takes Blender out to lunch at a local Applebee’s—“You may as well get the full Hendersonville experience,” she quips—and is instantly thrust into press-the-flesh mode, patiently signing autographs for all the fans who flock to her table. This includes a ditzy waitress who at first fails to recognize her, then asks if anyone has ever told Taylor she looks like Faith Hill and finally suggests she consider a modeling career. Later today, Swift is scheduled to fly to Phoenix to sing at a corporate event for Procter & Gamble. “It’s going to be fun,” she chirps. “I love so many of their brands.”
Britney Spears and Paris Hilton might roll their eyes at this naiveté, then hijack an SUV to the next Beverly Hills debauchery. But there is a large part of the U.S. that still prefers good behavior over bad. And in a country where blond female singers are the new gangsta rappers, Taylor appeals to moms who worry about their daughters having proper role models, and who’ll happily buy a pair of $28 tickets to spend a wholesome family night out and support an ideal.
After lunch, Swift takes Blender for another drive and cues up a bunch of new demos, each catchier than the next: a tense rocker, cowritten with Kellie Pickler; a sweet folk-tinged song dedicated to BFF Abigail; an unreasonably hooky ’80s-style power ballad. (Swift declares herself “the biggest Def Leppard fan in the world.”) In late March, she’ll hit the road with country mega-hitmakers Rascal Flatts, popping into the studio in free moments to start her next album. “Taylor will be around a long time,” Brad Paisley predicts. “Her audience will grow with her.”
In the meantime, Swift can indulge her one apparent vice: schadenfreude. The liner notes to the deluxe edition of Taylor Swift include an epic list of thank-yous, followed by a taunting postscript: “To all the boys who thought they would be cool and break my heart, guess what? Here are 14 songs written about you. HA.” You can’t help but feel for the guy who inspired Swift’s latest single, “Picture to Burn,” where she nyah-nyahs, “So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy/That’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” Taylor’s Mean Girls moments are reminders that, despite her grown-up career and sylphine presence on the red carpet, she’s a teenager, just a few years removed from the daily humiliations at Wyomissing Area Junior High.
Steering her Lexus down the winding road back to her house, she recounts a close encounter with another ex-boyfriend, the guy who inspired the hit heartbreak ballad “Teardrops on My Guitar.” “I was on my way out of the house to meet Carrie and Kellie for the hockey game,” she says. “He was standing there in my driveway. I haven’t talked to this guy in two years. I was like, ‘Um, hi?’” “It would have been really cool and poetic. She chuckles gently. if he had turned up at my house right after my album came out. But it was two years later. A couple of things had happened in my life since then. I was like, ‘It’s really great to see you. But you’re a little late.’”
she's so cute, i adore her.