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Swift success

Or is it? The CMA darling has been at it since she was 11.

November 11, 2009|Randy Lewis

When Taylor Swift showed up over the weekend as both host and musical guest on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," the 19-year-old country-pop star delivered the show's highest ratings of the season so far.

Tonight she'll be vying with country music veterans -- all men -- for the title of entertainer of the year at the Country Music Assn.'s annual award ceremony in Nashville. Should she win, she will be the first woman to win that title since 2000, and she'd become the youngest recipient of the CMA's top prize.

It will cap a week in which her 2006 debut album, "Taylor Swift," also set the 21st century record for longevity on the Billboard 200: It has now spent more than three years on that listing of the nation's bestselling album releases.

The Pennsylvania-born Nashville transplant, who sold more albums in 2008 than any act in any genre, also gracefully weathered a high-profile celebrity bullying incident in September when rapper Kanye West snatched a microphone out of her hands on national television in what should have been her moment of glory for taking best female video honors at the MTV Video Music Awards.

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A savvy young lady

How has the singer, songwriter and, more recently, producer with the wavy blond tresses and a penchant for sundresses and cowboy boots become so spectacularly successful?

She's done it by cannily employing the four T's of pop music: talent, tenacity, technology and teens. And she's done so without relying on overt sexuality, which makes pop music's new teen queen a family-friendly performer and role model whom many parents enjoy as much as their teenage kids.

The elder of Scott and Andrea Swift's two children, Taylor Swift grew up in Wyomissing, Pa., knowing from childhood she wanted to be a songwriter. At 11, she talked her parents into taking her to visit Nashville.

She recalls going door to door and announcing, "Hi! I'm Taylor. I write songs and I think you should sign me!" the ever-enthusiastic Swift told The Times shortly after her first album was released.

She didn't land a deal then, but an executive she met on one of those early trips, Scott Borchetta, then at DreamWorks Nashville, was impressed by her forthrightness, as well as the song samples he heard, and asked her father to keep him informed about her activities.

That's where her tenacity paid off. Periodically checking back with publishers and labels while continuing to write songs regularly at home in her bedroom, Swift was offered a deal when she was 14: not as a recording artist, but as a fledgling songwriter for Sony/ATV Music Publishing. That was enough for the Swifts to sell their home and move to Hendersonville, Tenn.

By this time, DreamWorks Nashville had folded, one of many labels that went under in the mid-2000s. Borchetta, widely respected for his skills in music promotion, had a vision of a label at which he could implement the new strategies he felt were needed in light of the changing, and shrinking, music business.

Other labels began to approach Swift, but most saw her only as a fresh-faced singer. Borchetta, on the other hand, liked the honesty in her songs of teen romance and heartbreak, and felt she had the potential both to connect with existing country music fans and possibly attract younger listeners who weren't necessarily committed country enthusiasts.

He made Swift an offer allowing her to record her own songs, and even to have a voice in how those recordings would be produced -- highly unusual for a 15-year-old with no track record. But Swift had impressed him with her dedication to her songwriting duties -- and her flawless fluency in the language of the new generation: the Internet and MySpace.

It was a gamble for both.

Borchetta's label, to be known as Big Machine Records, hadn't opened its doors yet, and 2005 wasn't an ideal time for a start-up record company. Swift joined staffers, sitting on the floor of the spartan office, stuffing news releases and copies of her debut CD into envelopes for mailing.

"Obviously, creative control is the most important thing for me," Swift told The Times last year, "or I wouldn't have left the biggest label in Nashville for a label that didn't have any furniture."

Her first single was a savvy love letter to one of country's biggest stars, a song called "Tim McGraw," which because of the name-dropping title caught the ears of hard-to-reach radio programmers and started the album's climb toward gold and then platinum.

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Writing her ticket

Unlike many teen musicians who have tried to sound preternaturally grown-up, Swift fully embraced the agonies and ecstasies of life as a teenager, in some ways similar to what Chuck Berry had done during the nascent days of rock 'n' roll a half-century before her.

She had realized early on that "There are thousands of girls going up and down Music Row who are gorgeous and who have amazing voices and who can sing higher and louder than me," she once said. "Somehow I had to find a way to stand out and be the different one."

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