Taylor Swift's Road to Fame

The chipmunk years. ''When I was 10, or younger than that, even, I would watch these biographies on Faith Hill or the Dixie Chicks or Shania Twain or LeAnn Rimes, and the thing I kept hearing was that they had to go to Nashville,'' Swift remembers. She talked her parents into letting her fly out for a visit. ''I took my demo CDs of karaoke songs, where I sound like a chipmunk — it's pretty awesome — and my mom waited in the car with my little brother while I knocked on doors up and down Music Row. I would say, 'Hi, I'm Taylor. I'm 11; I want a record deal. Call me.''' They didn't. (But you have to wonder how many of the folks who answered those doors suddenly flashed back to that moment when they saw a grown-up Swift screaming over her Best New Artist nod at the Grammy nominations press conference.)

Rather than discouraging her, that rejection was like rocket fuel. It dawned on her that karaoke-style singing wasn't going to cut it at any age; she needed to become a full-fledged guitar-picking singer/songwriter. ''She came back from that trip to Nashville and realized she needed to be different, and part of that would be to learn the guitar,'' says her mother, Andrea Swift. Earlier, she had tried picking up an acoustic guitar and had no interest in it, but things had changed. ''Now, at 12, she saw a 12-string guitar and thought it was the coolest thing. And of course we immediately said, 'Oh no, absolutely not, your fingers are too small — not till you're much older will you be able to play the 12-string guitar.' Well, that was all it took. Don't ever say never or can't do to Taylor. She started playing it four hours a day — six on the weekends. She would get calluses on her fingers and they would crack and bleed, and we would tape them up and she'd just keep on playing. That's all she played, till a couple of years later, which was the first time she ever picked up a six-string guitar. And when she did, it was like, wow, this is really easy!''

She started writing, too. Two of the songs she'd recorded (''The Outside,'' on her debut album, and ''Christmas Must Mean Something More,'' from a Target-exclusive Christmas EP she released) were written when she was 12. When she went back to Nashville with her own songs in tow, people took notice: At 13, she signed a development deal with RCA Records, working with that label's Joe Galante and Renee Bell, a couple of legendary figures in town. But when the deal came up for renewal after a year, she opted out, because she felt she'd have to record outside material if she got to the point of cutting her debut — and at 14, she was already married to the idea of only recording material she had a hand in writing. Not coincidentally, at 14, she became the youngest person ever signed to the major songwriting company in Nashville, Sony/ATV Publishing.

NEXT PAGE: Taking chances

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