(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
In retrospect, Taylor Swift’s recent and rapid career-building had all of the classic elements displayed by previous women country stars.
Taylor Swift went directly to the fans, via MySpace. But she had songwriting ability, a charming stage manner, abundant personality and drive, and she looked very good. For her, it worked. Everything clicked into place.
Still, not everyone remembers she didn’t just appear out of nowhere. Like all women who finally succeed in country, she nurtured a dream for years. Swift began coming to Nashville at age 11, handing out her tapes, knocking on doors and not giving up. Then, she figured out that MySpace could work for her — and bingo!
How does Swift’s ascent compare to career climbs by women country stars in the past?
Tanya Tucker was 13 when she began her Nashville blitz. Combining a relentless ambition with considerable music talent and young girl cuteness, young Tanya was initially unstoppable. She attacked Nashville through an outside advisor and a veteran producer. The Tucker family was broke and jobless when they arrived en masse on music lawyer and consultant Bill Carter’s doorstep in Little Rock, Ark. His main connection then was his work for the Rolling Stones, but he had considerable clout in the industry. As her new manager, he got her a Nashville deal, and she got Tammy Wynette’s producer, Billy Sherrill, and they got hits. Her record label’s New York office cajoled Rolling Stone until Tucker went on the cover at age 15. The first country music cover in Rolling Stone history.
Dolly Parton had all the elements: beauty, a gorgeous voice, enormous songwriting talent, an unbelievable will to succeed and an appetite for stardom. She packed her meager things and left for Nashville the day after she graduated from high school. Dolly went through an older mentor, Porter Wagoner, and his enormously popular TV show. She left his show to go out on her own and toured and recorded non-stop. But she also courted the press outside Nashville early on, calling on such publications as Rolling Stone. She became the second country music woman on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Loretta Lynn went directly to radio stations in the days when stations could build superstars. She had unique songs, undeniable ability and stage presence, personality to spare, a passion to succeed and an impossible to define immediate link with fans. She had her husband drive her from station to station — finding them by going from huge antenna to huge antenna, when stations were recognizable by their transmitting towers that stood hundreds of feet tall. She charmed radio and — once the listening public got a chance to hear her — won over audiences everywhere.
Tammy Wynette is another example of fierce career drive. At age 24, the then-named Virginia Wynette Byrd was a divorced mother of three but held a strong belief in her singing ability, and she possessed no end of ambition and drive. She moved with her children to Nashville, keeping her beautician’s license valid. She pitched songs to influential producer-songwriter Billy Sherrill. Two weeks later he had changed her name to Tammy Wynette, was writing songs for her and had her signed to Epic Records.
Patsy Cline, born Virginia Patterson Hensley, dropped out of school to support her family at age 15 after her father — who had abused her for years — deserted them. She developed a single-minded determination to make it. After scuffling for years in the music business, her breakthrough came when she appeared on what was the prototype for American Idol. When Cline sang “Walkin’ After Midnight” on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in January of 1957, she became an overnight sensation. (One interesting footnote from that show is that Godfrey’s staff insisted that Cline not wear any of her usual cowgirl outfits that her mother had hand-sewn for her but appear in a cocktail dress instead. That became her image.) Then her recording career took off when she finally landed with the master producer and arranger Owen Bradley in Nashville. She was almost 29 when she finally got her first No. 1 hit and died two years later in a plane crash.
All of the women mentioned above had, above all else, truly distinctive voices. They also possessed the ability and determination to maintain a career for as long as they wanted. That’s something that’s becoming more and more difficult, but it is certainly possible, particularly in country music. Can Taylor Swift one day equal them? That’s up to her and to time and to her audiences. Many other women have tried and failed.
Can anyone repeat what Taylor has done in succeeding — on her own — so swiftly? Probably not in the same way, because those forces of convergence are not still there, not in the same way.
Others have already tried, with varying success, to emulate Swift’s success in launching her career. They’re lacking in something else she has, which is something she shared with Dolly and Tanya and Tammy and Loretta and Patsy. It’s a huge intangible. And it’s something you can’t buy. It can’t be taught. Or traded. It’s stardust.
And you can’t fake stardust or invent it on the Internet. You either have it or you don’t.