Why Nashville Still Roots for Taylor Swift Despite 'Reputation' Being a Far Cry From Country
When Taylor Swift’s Reputation hit shelves last week, it marked the star’s furthest departure yet from the country sounds of her adopted hometown of Nashville -- yet the city is still cheering her on.
Among the reasons: as she’s transitioned from country singer-songwriter to pop queen, she’s carefully continued to pay her respects to the town that launched her career, while continuing to wield considerable power there through her label, Big Machine.
To be sure, Swift’s presence in Nashville is relatively minimal these days, save for occasional news items featuring her being spotted snuggled up to boyfriend Joe Alwyn on her penthouse condo's balcony overlooking Vanderbilt University, or the infrequent tweets from excited locals saying she was seen in nearby Hillsboro Village at her regular coffee spot, Fido, or next door at her favorite boutique, Pangaea.
When Swift won the Country Music Association's song of the year award last week for writing Little Big Town's hit "Better Man,” one fan was baffled, tweeting: "Taylor Swift turned her back on country music how the hell did she win the CMA for song of the year?" Another fan tweeted: "Taylor Swift WOULD win a CMA even though it's no longer her genre," with a cry-laughing emoji at the end.
But at a music industry gathering just before Reputation’s release, Nashville executives spoke enthusiastically of Swift and her new album, lauding her “genius” and willingness to try new things.
"I think [Nashville] realizes that country music just couldn't hold her,” says Neil Pond, former editorial director at the now-defunct Country Weekly magazine and current managing editor at Parade Magazine. “The country part of it was great, but she's got a lot of music and textures to explore and experiment with."
There are several reasons Nashville is still rooting for Swift, starting with the way she navigated her move from country to pop: 2012’s Red served as a transition album, with sounds ranging from country to pop and even dubstep, such that by the time 2014’s 1989 arrived -- with nary a country twang to be found -- fans in Nashville and beyond already knew she was moving in a pop direction and accepted that she had evolved musically beyond any particular genre.
Beyond the music, Swift handled the transition with grace -- never dismissing her country past or indicating that she has used the country genre as a gateway to pop. She also continued to keep a hand in country, most recently via “Better Man,” which snagged the CMA Award.
Though she could write a song for any artist in almost any genre, Swift not only wrote "Better Man" specifically for Little Big Town, but also allowed the group to release the single without initially revealing who wrote it, for fear of any backlash. Swift was in rehearsals for SNL and couldn’t attend the CMAs, but immediately tweeted “I LOVE YOU @littlebigtown and CMAs” upon the award announcement.
And this week, Big Machine Label Group serviced Reputation track “New Year’s Day,” co-written with Bleachers' Jack Antonoff, to country radio, while Swift performed the piano ballad on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Monday night. Taylor remains the biggest act on the Big Machine roster, which includes artists from Rascal Flatts to Cheap Trick.
“Taylor's a genius. She's a pop genius, and she's a marketing genius,” said Clint Redwine, a morning show co-host and producer at Nashville's adult contemporary station WXJA. “I don't think she does anything where she hasn't completely thought it out. I don't say that in a bad way, I think it's incredible that she has the forethought to do that, and I think it's spectacular that there is an artist out there with so much more brainpower than I will ever have in my life. As far as [Reputation] goes? Man, I love it. It's not my favorite [album of hers] but I love it. She's willing to put herself out there and try something new.”
One of Swift’s childhood friends, Lashette Showers, said that she “was never a huge country music fan, so I’ve enjoyed seeing [Swift's] music grow with her as an artist.”
“Artists go through lots of phases and are constantly trying to create something new and true to who they are in that moment,” Showers said. “She is a great representation of a strong, creative, talented artist and business woman that this industry needs right now.”
Meanwhile, said Pond, people in Nashville “are like people everywhere: they are waiting to see what she does next.”
Melinda Newman contributed to this article.