Taylor Swift isn’t just the biggest country star of 2009. She’s the biggest star period.
Her sophomore album, “Fearless” (Big Machine), has spent the most weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 this year and has been certified triple platinum, but she’s not done yet. Her concert at Madison Square Garden, her first as a headliner there, sold out in one minute. Also, her latest single, “You Belong to Me,” currently sits at No. 1 on the country charts and No. 2 on the pop charts, and that’s what may be the most impressive.
While country music always has its share of stars, the genre hasn’t seen this kind of crossover success since Shania Twain’s heyday a decade ago; even then, Twain, whom Swift counts as a major influence, didn’t match the 19-year-old’s across-the-board appeal. Swift looks as comfortable singing with ‘80s rockers Def Leppard as she does hanging out with her pal Miley Cyrus.
“I can’t believe people have been so wonderful to me,” Swift told Newsday backstage at an MTV event.
What makes it more special, though, is that she has done it all essentially on her own terms. “I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life than,” she said. “I wrote every song on it. I co-produced it. So to have people go out and actually buy it? It’s wonderful.”
For Swift, songwriting is a major part of her story. The Pennsylvania native was first signed to a publishing deal with Sony/ATV Music at age 14. By the time she reached 17, she became the youngest person to write and sing a No. 1 country single entirely on her own when “Our Song” topped Billboard’s country singles chart.
Nevertheless, Swift says she still worried about “Fearless.” “The night before it came out, I remember staying up all night and thinking, ‘Is anyone going to buy it at all?’” she said. “You always have those last-minute jitters.”
She really could have gotten some sleep. Swift sold nearly 600,000 copies of “Fearless” in its opening week in November, making it her first No. 1 pop album and proving that country music’s appeal was far broader than many expected.
It proved, in impossible-to-dispute numbers, what many country artists had always said — that their music is just as viable in the pop world as any other genre.
BLURRING THE LINES
Singer-songwriter Kenny Chesney, for example, who has broken touring records by selling more than a million tickets annually for the last six years, says the lines between genres have been blurring for years. “I think that my audience listens to more than just country music,” says Chesney.
Chesney gets to see evidence of that regularly and experienced it firsthand when he invited rocker Dave Matthews to play with him onstage.
“I said, ‘You should come out and do (‘Where Are You Going?’), and we’ll do a Marley song or something,’ and he was legitimately scared that my audience wouldn’t know who he was,” Chesney recalls. “He walked out onstage, and I introduced him as ‘From Charlottesville, Virginia, my friend Dave Matthews,’ and the crowd went crazy. You could tell it was a relief off his shoulders. That’s when we both knew that they may be listening to a Kenny Chesney record, but they’re also listening to a Dave Matthews record. We share an audience of people who just love music.”
In fact, Chesney’s current single is “I’m Alive,” a duet with Matthews that is climbing the country charts, showing that crossovers happen both ways.
“Of course, I love my core country audience,” Chesney says. “But we just played Soldier Field ... and you can’t do that with just that audience. I think that’s what’s so great about music. There’s a lot of differences in the world. The world is full of hate. It’s full of this, and it’s full of that. The world’s got a lot of problems. But everybody listens to music. That’s the one commonality.”
The success of Swift and Chesney is encouraging newcomers to look at country music in a different light. “American Idol” third-place finisher Danny Gokey counts himself as a country music convert.
“Country has really taken a shift,” he said backstage at Nassau Coliseum before the recent “American Idols Live” show. “It’s growing as an industry.”
Gokey says he’s weighing two offers to make his national debut a country album. “I like the message — that’s what is very important to me,” he says. “I can’t see myself making ‘booty’ songs or dancey songs, that’s just not me. I’m basically a person who wants to talk about what I talk about, and it’s one of the last genres you can do that in.”
He quickly adds one caveat, though, joking, “I’m not gonna have a twang.”
FOLLOWING IN TAYLOR SWIFT’S FOOTSTEPS
Taylor Swift’s crossover success laid the groundwork for a bumper crop of new pop-leaning country artists. Here’s a look at some of the new faces:
LOVE AND THEFT
Who: A trio of Nashville singer-songwriters — including Stephen Barker Liles, who may or may not be the inspiration for Swift’s song “Hey Stephen” — bound together by a love of Eagles-ish harmonies and country-tinged rockers.
Target audience: Fans looking for the next Eagles and teenage girls, like Swift, wowed by the cute factor.
Pop influence: Goo Goo Dolls
New single: “Runaway” (Lyric Street)
Who: The Gossin Brothers, Tom and Mike, team up with Rachel Reinert and Cheyenne Kimball for four-part harmonies and a wide-ranging mix of guy-girl vocals on everything from traditional country to rock.
Target audience: Fans of Sugarland and Lady Antebellum
Pop influence: Fleetwood Mac
New single: “Wild at Heart” (Emblem/Atlantic)
Who: Bomshel has been around a while, but after some personnel changes and a bit of tweaking to their sound and image, it looks like Kelley Shepard and Kristy O. may be set to break through.
Target audience: Country-loving, girl-power fans looking for the Avril Lavigne of the South.
Pop influence: Melissa Etheridge
New single: “Fight Like a Girl” (Curb)