Tennessean of the Year: Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift just turned 24.

She came to Middle Tennessee from Pennsylvania at 14, and in the ensuing near-decade she has become an international superstar, and a wealthy young woman. Those are rare and laudable things, but they've been done before.

Swift, though, is unprecedented. She came to popular attention with Top 10 country hit "Tim McGraw" when she was 16, becoming the first mid-teenage singer-songwriter to do so since Janis Ian hit the Top 20 with "Society's Child" in 1967. And Swift has made the most graceful transition from teen stardom to adult music career since Brenda Lee, who recorded signature hit "I'm Sorry" at age 15 and maintained an impeccable image on her way to the country music and rock and roll halls of fame.

Yet these are not the reasons that The Tennessean recognizes Swift as the 2013 Tennessean of the Year.

Swift has become a worldwide ambassador for Tennessee's capital city, an example to millions of young (and not-so-young) people of how to turn damaged feelings into healing creativity, and a financial booster to some of the city's most important institutions. In October, the Taylor Swift Education Center opened at the greatly expanded Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, courtesy of Swift's $4 million gift, the largest individual artist gift in the museum's history.

The center, which opened ahead of schedule in October, spans two floors and includes three classrooms, a learning lab and, coming in 2014, an interactive exhibit gallery. It gives the museum seven times more space for education.

And this month, on her birthday, Swift offered up $100,000 to the Nashville Symphony, an organization that endured severe financial uncertainty in 2013. For the second consecutive year, Swift topped DoSomething.org's list of the top 20 charitable celebrities, and much of her generosity is intended for the betterment of Nashville.

"For her to believe in us, the hometown institutions, and to be focused on Nashville speaks volumes," says Kyle Young, the director and chief executive officer of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "How often do you think she's approached to do things, all over the world? So it means so much for her to believe in us and think that investments here would help the city she clearly cares so much about."

The ambassador

In many ways, Swift carries Nashville and its music all over the world.

In 2013, she became the first solo female artist in 20 years to headline a stadium tour in Australia, and in early 2014 she'll headline five shows at London's 20,000-seat O2 arena and another in Berlin. Her unusual attention to foreign markets landed her a second Country Music Association International Artist award, and current album "Red" reached No. 1 in 50 countries.

A recent New York magazine story hailed her as "the biggest pop star in the world," and in November she became the second artist in history to receive the CMA's Pinnacle Award, for taking country to a worldwide audience.

"There's a resurgence of country music across the globe, and Taylor has been a major reason for that," says Jeff Walker, who serves on the CMA's international committee and is the executive producer of the CMA Global shows that serve as unofficial kickoffs to each CMA Music Festival.

Mayor Karl Dean visited China in December and met a member of Swift's worldwide audience. He spoke to a Chinese woman whose only knowledge of Nashville was that it was home to Taylor Swift. (Presumably, the mayor put in a good word for hot chicken.)

"Her rise to prominence has coincided with a lot of the things going on in Nashville," Dean says, noting the rise of Music City rock acts including Kings of Leon, The Black Keys and Jack White and the evolving downtown cityscape to which Swift has contributed. "She's one of the most dynamic and popular musical performers in the world, and she's perceived as having universal appeal across categories. She transcends genres, and that's a great thing for the city."

Unlike most modern performers who don't often lean heavily on roots-music traditions -- and in spite of what many critics assessed when Swift emerged as a 16-year-old, singing songs about high school concerns -- her appeal also cuts across generations.

Kris Kristofferson, Mick Jagger, Emmylou Harris, legendary BBC radio and television personality Bob Harris and other non-newbies sing Swift's praises, as did the late producer, songwriter and publisher Cowboy Jack Clement (Swift made a video presentation for the Cowboy's tribute concert in January 2013, which delighted Clement).

The role model

But Swift's primary inspiration as a singer and songwriter thus far has been to the same people whom her education center will serve: kids in their formative years, especially girls.

These are the people for whom Swift was the first example of a girl too young to drink legally or rent a car who found popular embrace by turning her own experiences and insecurities into songs. Her example has led thousands of young people to do the same.

"For me, writing songs was something I did to feel better about things like rejection or not feeling included or understood," Swift says. "When you feel those things as a kid, they can flatten you if you don't know how to articulate them or move through them. So one of the most incredible statements that I hear from people is, I play guitar because you do, or I write because you do."

Swift hears that kind of thing most every night on tour, and if her success did nothing but move masses of kids toward music, thoughtfulness and self-worth, then she would have been plenty good for the world.

She's done much more than that, though, and she's done it without disappointing or confusing those who came to adore her. We are well-versed in the foibles and meltdowns that normally accompany such transitions, as we're constantly informed of every foible, twerk, tweet, lapse, relapse and indiscretion from the young celebrity set.

Yet, with paparazzi and tabloid scribes hoping to make a living from Swift's every pratfall, here's the most damaging detail to emerge: Sometimes she goes on dates.

Six years in the limelight have drawn Swift seven Grammy awards (she's nominated for four more, including all-genre album of the year, for January's Grammy Awards). In an already staggering career -- 26 million albums sold (with Swift solely writing or contributing as a writer to every track) and 75 million downloads -- among her most impressive and unusual accomplishments is that, at 24, she has already created a legacy. And those who take from her example understand that in order to be like her, they have to be themselves.

"When I heard her, I wanted a chance to express my feelings in songs," says 17-year-old Codi Lester of Newberry, S.C., who was in the sixth grade when she first heard Swift's voice on the radio and who now regularly performs in listening rooms and at school events and church functions. "It has been a therapy for me. A lot of country music is about things I don't know about, that I've never experienced. She motivates me to write more about what I'm feeling and sing it with passion, like she does."

Lester is pondering college options and thinking of studying music therapy, performing arts or music education. She's interested in Belmont University, because Belmont is in Nashville. And because Taylor Swift is in Nashville. And because Taylor Swift says Nashville is a wondrous place to be.

"I would not be the same kind of person without Nashville," Swift says.

"It has shaped me into who I am. I think everybody feels that. We don't have an ocean, or mountains: People come here because of the feeling they get. It pulls you in and turns you into who you're going to be."

Swift is the face of that kind of Nashville: a city that promotes self-expression and creativity, that projects wonder and ambition and decorum; a city that values intelligence and achievement; a city of kindness and inclusion; a city that looks both inward and upward, and grows upward and outward; a city concerned not merely with what music can make, but with what music can do.


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