Since bursting on to the country music scene in 2006 with her debut single, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift has changed the modern understanding of “country music”, introducing a younger demographic to the genre with her relatable narratives, confessional lyrics and captivating melodies, she has encouraged a generation of young women to pick up the acoustic guitar and paved the way for future country crossover artists. The talented, young singer-songwriter, inspired by artists such as Shania Twain, Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes, persuaded her parents to relocate to Tennessee when she was only fourteen years old to pursue a career in the spiritual home of country music, soon becoming the youngest ever songwriter to sign a publishing contract with Sony/ATV. With the release of her eponymous debut album in 2006, her 2008 follow up Fearless, and an entirely self-written third album Speak Now in 2010, Swift cemented her success as a mainstream country-pop musician. In January 2010, at just 20 years old, Swift became the youngest artist ever to win Album of the Year for Fearless at the Grammy Awards, setting her on a course to dominate the 2010s.
The intervening decade has seen her transition from country sensation to pop megastar, with over 200 million record sales worldwide, seven consecutive number one albums on the Billboard 200, nine Academy of Country Music Awards, ten Grammy Awards and 29 American Music Awards, making her the AMA’s most awarded act of all time. In 2019, Swift was named Woman of the Decade by Billboard and Artist of the Decade at the American Music Awards, becoming the first woman to earn the title. Leveraging her powerful cultural influence to battle for musician’s rights, Swift has consistently opposed low-royalty streaming services and continues to fight for ownership of her masters, empowering all artists to consider their own intellectual property rights.
Since blending her then signature country twang with a mix of pop, rock and electronic influences on her fourth studio album Red in 2012, before fully transitioning genres with 2014’s glossy synth-pop masterpiece 1989, followed by 2017 electropop revenge statement Reputation and her shimmering pop-rock showcase Lover in 2019, Swift has once again demonstrated a refusal to be pigeon-holed, dramatically reinventing herself with a surprise eighth studio album in 2020. Written in secret during Covid-19 quarantine, Folklore is a lyrical indie-folk record with a whimsical nod to Swift’s country roots. As she explains in the album’s Prologue: In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Three of the seventeen songs – cardigan, august and betty – depict a teenage love triangle from all three perspectives. Introducing betty on country radio in August 2020, Swift addressed fan speculation around the meaning of the song’s lyrics and the identity of the three characters, revealing Everybody makes mistakes, everybody really messes up sometimes, and this is a song that I wrote from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy. I’ve always loved that in music you can kinda slip into different identities and you can sing from other people’s perspectives. So that’s what I did on this one. Swift made her debut live performance of the country-tinged betty when she graced the stage for the first time in seven years at the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry on Wednesday 16th September 2020. Clad in sequin Stella McCartney, Swift perched on a stool, on the backlit stage with only a harmonica player to accompany her as she strummed her acoustic guitar for the pared back performance.
Often treating fans to stripped down performances during live shows to reflect the acoustic origin of her song writing, Swift has frequently favored an ebony Gibson J-180 acoustic guitar over the past decade, notably on her record-breaking stadium tours in support of 1989 and Reputation. Acquired in 2018, Swift chose this particular J-180 for her triumphant return to the ACM Awards this September. The two-time ACM Entertainer of the Year award winner last performed at the show in 2013, when she joined Keith Urban and Tim McGraw for a performance of Highway Don't Care. Despite her transition into other musical genres, Swift made an appearance at the awards in 2015 to receive the Academy’s Milestone Award for a major impact in country music, remarking in her acceptance speech: I'm so happy, so happy I learned to write songs in a town like Nashville. I'm so grateful that I learned what hard work is from my heroes who are all sitting here. And I'm so unbelievably proud that I learned to treat people with kindness and respect from country music.
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Photo credit: Getty Images/ Courtesy of the Academy of Country Music