While her sentimental songs seem like natural hit fodder now, when her album debuted in late '06, Swift had two strikes against her. First, as she points out, ''No teenager had worked [in a big way] in country music since LeAnn Rimes, and that was 1996.'' And female artists of any age have a tough time on country radio, where the core demo is females over 35 who the research insists want to hear from handsome fantasy objects like George Strait and Keith Urban, not pretty young things who might steal their husbands' attention. But through the magic of MySpace, Swift managed to draw younger ears to the format and then, to programmers' surprise, she eventually won over that prickly mom demo, too.
''She's a teen, but there's no bubblegum aspect to it,'' says Scott Borchetta, the founder and CEO of Swift's indie label, Big Machine. ''There's heartache in her songs and her voice. It feels fresh, because the rawest heartbreak is probably the first heartbreak. I was talking to a program director at a key country station in Cleveland, who was struggling with playing 'Teardrops.' Then he played it for his wife and she was blown away. He asked her, 'How do you relate to this girl?' She said, 'I absolutely lived that in high school.' Some people connect with Taylor's songs because they're right in that moment and some because they're nostalgic about it.''
One track, ''The Outside,'' was written when Swift was a tunesmith all of 12. ''I wrote that about the scariest feeling I've ever felt: going to school, walking down the hall, looking at all those faces, and not knowing who you're gonna talk to that day. People always ask, How did you have the courage to walk up to record labels when you were 12 or 13? It's because I could never feel the kind of rejection in the music industry that I felt in middle school.''
In the small town in Pennsylvania where she grew up before her family moved to Tennessee, Swift's nascent careerism saved her from joining the slacker crowd, but it also made for some lonely times. She'd play the 12-string guitar for hours, until her calluses bled, practicing and writing songs. ''On weekends, my friends were starting to party already, and steal alcohol from their parents. I was never even tempted'' and still isn't, vowing to wait until her 21st birthday before imbibing. ''What I was doing on weekends was sneaking into karaoke bars, singer-songwriter nights, and festivals, plugging my guitar into little crackling amplifiers. That separates you, when you're not doing the same stuff.''
''She's just very sure of who she is,'' says her mom, Andrea Swift. ''She's been that way since she was tiny. I don't know why it's nothing I did, and when I was her age, I was doing everything I could to fit in. It's not stubbornness, just sureness. And she's self-governed because she chooses to be.'' There'll be no demonizing stage-mom horror stories here. Though Taylor's grandmother was an opera singer, ''music was never my dream,'' says Andrea. ''We were on a farm, and I had her sitting on a pony when she was 9 months old. If my dream had gone well,'' Mrs. Swift laughs, ''she'd be in a horse show right now.''
Per her MySpace confessions, Swift hasn't dated much lately. Surely, after coasting along on writing about those high school beaus all this time, she could use some fresh material. ''You want to hear my new career and dating philosophy?'' she asks, twirling another fry in her shake. ''When I find someone who fascinates me as much as my career,'' she says, conspiratorially, ''I'm gonna go for it.'' Good luck, lads.