The Bluebird Cafe is known as something of a kingmaker in Nashville, having hosted and helped launch such country titans as Garth Brooks and Mary Chapin Carpenter. During performances there, patrons are urged to abide by the Cafe's strict "Shhhh!" policy/slogan by keeping quiet at all times -- a testament to the reverence held by the Music City gatekeepers. On any given Sunday, the audience is likely to hear the first public performance of a future hit or hitmaker. Three years ago, a starry-eyed fourteen-year-old girl with a head of tightly kinked blond curls took the stage between vets like Robert Ellis Orrall and Michael Peterson. It's not hard to imagine the audience wondering if they were seeing the Next Big Thing or asking themselves, "Who does she know?"
"It was kind of an intimidating scene," recalls Taylor Swift, now seventeen, speaking via phone from Los Angeles. That Bluebird gig, however, garnered the teen an unprecedented publishing deal with Sony. "That's really what made me start taking music -- writing and performing -- really seriously. I would come home after school every single day and work on writing songs. Songwriting was my first 'in' in the business; singing and everything else came later."
"Everything else" stems from Swift's first big single, "Tim McGraw," which peaked at number three on the Billboard country chart and has held a spot in the top ten for months (it's currently holding strong at number six). She wrote it in one of her after-school sessions and saw it make a slew of year-end lists, including on CMT and Rhapsody.com. In the single's success, Swift joined the ranks of teenage country queens such as Tanya Tucker, Marie Osmond and LeAnn Rimes, who all charted at the age of thirteen. Unlike those young chart-toppers, though, Swift wrote the song herself.
"I've learned that when you write a song, not everyone hears it right away," Swift says. "I have to introduce myself and play it for one person at a time, and when I want to sell 500,000 albums, I have to meet 500,000 people."
Those introductions will be made considerably easier for Swift thanks to her current role warming stages for iconic untouchables George Strait and Ronnie Milsap, and she'll join Brad Paisley on the road later this year. The opportunity to tour with such notables provides Swift with an experience that she describes as "mind-blowing in every way." Now the only trick is dealing with the pressure of being the most celebrated underage songwriter to emerge from Music Row in decades.
"A lot of people my age graduate high school and go to college and get a job in a field that they love. I was lucky enough to pursue what I want to do right away," Swift says, sounding like a high school basketball player who was just drafted into the NBA. "There's a whole lot of pressure, but my passion outweighs the pressure, and I know I'm doing the right thing. Probably a lot of seventeen-year-olds might not be wired for this, but I am."
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