Country music promoter and veteran manager Jerry Bentley doesn’t care much for the prospects of most teenage singers.
In the business more than 30 years, he’s seen plenty of teenage careers crash, and he had some tough advice for the latest contender, 16-year-old Taylor Swift:
“Tell her to get back in school and come back and see me when she’s 18, and bring her parents,” said Bentley, who’s managed singer Lee Greenwood for 23 years.
“Even if she were 25, the odds would be against her. At 16, it’s near impossible. You have to work 300-plus days for a couple of years, and there’s no guarantee even then.”
Warnings like that don’t faze Swift. When told about Bentley’s advice, she hardly flinched: “I’d like to meet him and sit down and play for him,” she said.
Swift may be only a teenager, but she already has the nerves and determination of a steely veteran.
Her first hit single, “Tim McGraw,” came off her self-titled debut album last month, and she’s just been chosen as the opening act for a George Strait tour beginning in January.
Other kids her age are sitting in the audience at country shows; Swift was on stage recently as the opening act for Rascal Flatts, singing for more than 10,000 people in Moline, Ill.
“Not by any measure,” she says. “I’m intimidated by the fear of being average.”
Average, she’s not.
‘I’m 11 and I want a record deal’She grew up on a farm in Wyomissing, Pa., a suburb of Reading, and was inspired to sing by her maternal grandmother, an opera singer.
At 11 she performed the national anthem at a Philadelphia 76ers NBA game, and then began showing up at record company offices telling anyone who would listen, “I’m Taylor, I’m 11 and I want a record deal.”
She began writing songs a year later. Now she’s got her first record deal at 16, drawing comparisons with LeeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, who both broke through at 13.
However, neither Rimes nor Tucker were known for their songwriting. Swift wrote or co-wrote every song on her 11-track CD.
“I didn’t come in to this to be baby-sat,” Swift declared in an interview in a small basement conference room at Big Machine Records in the heart of Nashville’s Music Row.
She is homeschooled in order to focus on her music. With little spare time this fall, she went to the mall with a friend one day, but that was a rarity.
She managed to get to a high school football game in September at her old school, but missed homecoming because of career commitments. Likewise, she doesn’t go to parties with teenage friends.
“BMI and Sony Music parties are the ones I like,” she said.
Her hit “Tim McGraw,” which peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard country chart, namechecks country music’s reigning heartthrob. It’s a song about two people who fall in love to a McGraw song, break up and are reminded of each other whenever they hear the tune.
She and McGraw (whom she admires but has never met) have the same booking agent, who told Taylor that he played it for McGraw.
His response, according to the agent: “I’ve got to play it for Faith.” That’s Faith Hill, McGraw’s superstar wife.
Other songs on Swift’s album are mostly about love, focused on forgiveness, determination, achievement and self-esteem.
Liz Rose, who co-wrote seven of the songs, said Swift was born to be a singer-songwriter.
“She’s a genius, coming in with ideas and a melody,” said Rose, 49. “She’d come in and write with this old lady, and I never second guessed her. I respect her a lot.”
Taylor is undaunted about being in an industry dominated by singers, executives and songwriters often more than twice her age:
“If you have a calling for it and are ready for it, more power to you. For me, the time is right.”