meta-script8 Artists Bringing Traditional Country Music Back: Zach Top, Randall King, Emily Nenni & More On Why "What's Old Becomes Beloved Again" | GRAMMY.com
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(L-R): Zach Top, Randall King, Jenna Paulette, Emily Nenni, Dylan Gossett

Photos (L-R): Citizen Kane Wayne, Frank Hoensch/Redferns, Santiago Felipe/Getty Images, David A. Smith/Getty Images, William Basnett

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8 Artists Bringing Traditional Country Music Back: Zach Top, Randall King, Emily Nenni & More On Why "What's Old Becomes Beloved Again"

While the traditional country sound has never been fully lost, pop production and folk stylings have been at the genre’s forefront in recent years. But rising stars like Jenna Paulette and Jackson Dean are ensuring that old-school sounds never die.

GRAMMYs/Jan 26, 2024 - 03:44 pm

Between chart domination and stadium tours, there's no denying that country music has been on a hot streak lately. As the likes of Luke Combs, Lainey Wilson and Morgan Wallen help the genre achieve mainstream success, a renewed popularity in the country's traditional stylings has been front and center — and there's a new wave of rising stars continuing the trend. 

Of course, country's twangy soundscapes — augmented by everything from blistering banjos to meandering mandolin, fiery fiddle and some of the most earnest songwriting around — have been persistent for decades. Plenty of stars, including Chris Stapleton, Cody Johnson, Miranda Lambert and Ashley McBryde, have taken cues from genre trailblazers like George Strait and Dolly Parton. But more than a decade after the bro-country explosion and the pop-country takeover, country music may be going back to its roots more than it has in years.

Among the new generation of country traditionalists is Randall King, who kicks off 2024's slate of traditional releases with his second studio album, Into The Neon, on Jan. 26. When it comes to the invigorated allure of country music's roots, the Texan has his theories.

"Traditional country music is more about the song, people writing from the heart and telling great stories rather than pandering to a commercial audience," he tells GRAMMY.com. 

Below, King and seven others in the new crop of traditional country artists reflect on their musical roots and the subgenre's resurgence.

Jackson Dean

Hometown: Odenton, MD
Signed label/publishing deal: 2021
Listen to: "Don't Come Lookin'," which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart in February 2022

Since releasing his debut album, Greenbroke, in March 2022, Jackson Dean has continued to prove he's a star in the making. Greenbroke's lead single, "Don't Come Lookin,'" made him the youngest solo male country artist to top the Country Aircheck charts with their debut, landing at No. 3 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart as well. The Maryland-born, Nashville-based singer is on his way to similar success with his follow-up single, "Fearless (The Echo)," which resides at No. 18 on the Country Airplay chart as of press time.

With a vocal presence that conjures up the gritty mystique of Johnny Cash's "Man In Black" and liveliness of Luke Combs, Dean says he appreciates the full spectrum of country sounds, no matter where or how it's formed. As for the current traditional boom, Dean credits the internet for the current traditional boom.

"[With] social media and memes, people are able to pull things out of the archives and share them to a new audience,"speculates Dean. "There is also a love of nostalgia these days and a bit of a trend of romanticizing things of the past. What's old becomes beloved again."

Dylan Gossett

Hometown: Austin, TX
Signed label/publishing deal: 2023
Listen to: "Coal," which has amassed over 75 million streams

Inspired as much by crossover stars like Zach Bryan as he is by traditionalists like Alan Jackson, Dylan Gossett began making waves this past spring with his covers of the Lumineers' "Ophelia" and Flatland Cavalry's "A Life Where We Work Out" posted online. But soon his originals really put him on the map.

The lifelong Texan went viral in July with his second-ever single, "Coal," a humble and stripped-back song of struggle. "Coal" closes out Gossett's six-song debut EP, No Better Time, which taps into the traditional sound with a simple instrumental that doesn't overpower, but instead compliments deeply vulnerable and metaphorical lyrics like "They say pressure makes diamonds/ How the hell am I still coal?" 

Gossett became the first artist to sign with Big Loud Texas (an offshoot of Big Loud Records co-founded by Miranda Lambert and Jon Randall) in November. Less than a month later, he announced his first headlining tour, which sold out in less than a week.

So, why does Gossett think traditional country music is on the rebound? "I think people are diving back into real instrument and lyric-driven music," he says. 

Kimberly Kelly

Hometown: Lorena, TX
Signed label/publishing deal: 2021
Listen to: "Summers Like That" from 2022's "I'll Tell You What's Gonna Happen," her Show Dog Nashville debut

While growing up in Texas, Kimberly Kelly watched her mom struggle to chase musical dreams while simultaneously pursuing a master's degree. In 2012, Kelly's sister Kristen earned a record deal in Nashville and brought her on the road, giving her a behind-the-scenes look at the music business — ultimately inspiring her own artist journey.

Enter the aptly titled I'll Tell You What's Gonna Happen, Kelly's long-awaited 2022 debut full of classic country sass, dynamic vocals and compelling storytelling.. With songs like "Honky Tonk Town," "Blue Jean Country Queen" and a cover of Billy Joe Shaver's "Black Rose," the record honors torchbearers like Patsy Cline and Patty Loveless with a mix of easy-going ballads and hard-driving bangers. 

"I think it always comes back around because it's about real-life storytelling," Kelly says of the traditional sound. "Even I enjoy catchy bops, good grooves and songs that don't make me have to think too much, but every now and then you need to hear something that really tugs at your heart."

Randall King

Hometown: Hereford, TX
Signed label/publishing deal: 2019
Listen to: "You In A Honky Tonk" from 2022's Shot Glass, King's debut album for Warner Music Nashville

After building an independent following through a rigorous touring schedule, he eventually signed with Warner Music Nashville in September 2019. As his 2022 LP, Shot Glass, displays, King playfully mixes the lightheartedness of Jon Pardi with the sincerity of George Strait. Its forthcoming follow-up, the 18-track Into The Neon, will further tackle old school tropes through a modern lens, as evidenced on "Burns Like Her" and "Hang Of Hangin' On."

"I believe there's a way to blend some modernism into traditionalism," King suggests. "In this day and age you can take advantage of technology that you didn't have before and create great sounds. Sounds that are edgy yet natural while still holding to the roots and the value of traditional country music."

Emily Nenni

Hometown: Orinda, CA
Signed label/publishing deal: 2022
Listen to: "Can Chaser" from 2022's On The Ranch, her debut album for New West Records

Raised on her parents' Patsy Cline and Hank Williams cassettes, it's no surprise that Emily Nenni turned into a honky tonk queen. 

Approaching a decade in Nashville, the artist put her name on the map in 2022 with her New West Records debut On The Ranch, a collection of songs that largely came together during a stint on a Colorado ranch in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has everything traditional purists love — a blistering backbeat, plenty of pedal steel and lyrics about everything from strained relationships to baddass barrel racers. A follow-up to it is expected to come later this year.

"Traditional country music has such charm. It's honest, it's playful, it's sad, it's rowdy," Nenni says. "Some people love it because they want to go dancing all night at the honky tonks. Others are listening for the lyricism. Even some folks who just like it for the cowboy boots! There are all kinds of reasons and all kinds of people, and that makes me happy."

Jenna Paulette

Hometown: Lewisville, TX
Signed label/publishing deal: 2021
Listen to: "You Ain't No Cowboy" from 2023's The Girl I Was

Some of Jenna Paulette's earliest memories involve helping tend to her family's ranch and singing along to songs from the Chicks, Shania Twain and Reba McEntire with her siblings from the back seat of their piping hot gold Suburban. Even 10 years into living in Nashville, she makes it back to West Texas to help work the land whenever she isn't on the road or writing.

That blue-collar work ethic and humility has not only paid off on the farm, but in her musical pursuits as well. In 2022, CMT named her as part of its Next Women of Country class. Then in March 2023, Apple Music named her Country Riser of the Month as she celebrated the release of her transformative debut album, The Girl I Was. On the 16-song project, she fuses the sounds of Twain and Miranda Lambert, tackling mental health with the somber "You Ain't No Cowboy" and waxing philosophical on "Country In The Girl."

Whether back at home checking cattle or on some stage singing her songs, Paulette plans to keep her boots dirty and her soul clean every step of the way.

"I think people are craving something real in a world that breeds fast food, clickbait fame and the appearance of perfection," Paulette hypothesizes. "They want homemade biscuits, depth and family. They need something to remind them of their roots. The things I hold dearest and want to exemplify with my music are the things I think so many are longing to know still exist in our culture. It's actually pretty beautiful and gives me hope for the future."

Brit Taylor

Hometown: Hindman, KY
Signed label/publishing deal: 2023
Listen to: "No Cowboys" from 2023's Kentucky Blue, which was co-produced by Dave Ferguson and Sturgill Simpson

Brit Taylor hit rock bottom after a decade in Nashville. Between 2017 and 2018, she went through a divorce, her band disbanded, she nearly lost her home and lost her publishing deal.

But in the years since, she's bounced back in stunning fashion, beginning with the release of her solo debut, 2020's Real Me. Its highly anticipated follow-up, 2023's Sturgill Simpson and Dave Ferguson co-produced Kentucky Blue, was praised for its sincere storytelling and classic country soundscapes, leading to her Grand Ole Opry and performances on bigger and bigger stages in the months that followed. 

With plans to release Kentucky Bluegrassed — an eight-track project containing five previously recorded originals done bluegrass-style along with three new tunes — on Feb. 2, Taylor will be incorporating the sounds of her Appalachian youth into her music more than ever before. Despite shifting sounds, Taylor says that today's modern studio tools can still be used to embrace the traditional, citing Kacey Musgraves as an example of someone who blends "the bells and whistles and all the styles she loves while still being her authentic self." 

"At the end of the day, traditionalist or not, I think artists should be themselves and not try to chase after the current trends or even try to chase their past selves," Taylor proclaims. "Every artist should feel free to be true to the person they are at the moment they are in."

Zach Top

Hometown: Sunnyside, WA
Signed label/publishing deal: 2021
Listen to: "Like It Ain't No Thing," which reached No. 1 on the Bluegrass Today charts in February 2022

Opposite of Taylor, Zach Top is looking to parlay an upbringing in bluegrass music into a career in country music. After reaching No. 1 on the Bluegrass Today charts with "Like It Ain't No Thing" in early 2022, Top became the first signee to independent Nashville label Leo33 in September 2023.

Since then, the Washington state transplant has released a series of singles including the Kenny Chesney-esque "Busy Doin' Nothin' and George Jones-fueled croons on "Justa Jonesin'." Each song has been twangier than the last, as Top recounts his love of the "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems" and "White Lightning" eras of country music that shaped him — a concept he's expected to further delve into on the 12-song Cold Beer & Country Music out April 5.

"I think Nashville lost some of its soul in the last decade or two," asserts Top. "And I think that people, audiences, radio listeners, ticket buyers, whoever it is, got pretty tired of that. So they're looking for something that's got some more soul. And I think that absence of soul is why you see some of the real, raw-sounding music become very popular with people. We lost a lot of soul for a long time. People want soul."

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Jackson Dean performing in 2022
Jackson Dean performs at Faster Horses Festival in 2022.

Photo: Erika Goldring/WireImage

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12 Must-See Acts At Stagecoach 2023: Nate Smith, Morgan Wade, Jackson Dean & More

Before the famed country music festival takes place on April 28-30, take a look at some of the rising stars to check out whether you'll be at Stagecoach or tuning in from home.

GRAMMYs/Apr 26, 2023 - 10:04 pm

Now that the Coachella dust has settled at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif., it's time for country music to take over.

Since 2007, the Stagecoach Festival has been bringing some of the biggest names in country music to the desert. This year is no different, with the festival featuring headliners Luke Bryan, Kane Brown and Chris Stapleton, along with some of country's newer hitmakers, including Bailey Zimmerman, Parker McCollum, Gabby Barrett, Lainey Wilson and Tyler Childers

In addition to the always exciting headliners and stars, Stagecoach continues to be a showcase for up-and-coming talent. Several budding country and folk artists are on this year's roster, from a genre-bending New Jersey native to a bluegrass songstress with a powerful voice.

For fans who can't make the trip to catch the action in person, Stagecoach will be live streaming all weekend on Amazon Prime. No matter how you're enjoying the festival, get to know 12 acts to catch at Stagecoach 2023. 

Nate Smith

The weekend will be a big one for Nate Smith all around: Not only will the California-born singer make his Stagecoach debut, but he will be releasing his self-titled debut album on the same day, Friday April 28.

It's been a long road to success for Smith, who first moved to Nashville in his early 20s. After things didn't take off, he returned home to Paradise, Calif.; in 2018, he lost everything he owned in the massive wildfire that ripped through his hometown.  

But through it all, he found hope through music, and returned to Nashville to try again. Now, he has a No. 1 song — the gritty breakup romp "Whiskey On You" peaked in January — and a rejuvenated soul that is clearly resonating.

Tiera Kennedy

Tiera Kennedy's smooth voice and southern charm first caught the attention of Nashville in 2019, when she was signed as the flagship artist on Songs & Daughters, a publishing company founded by songwriter Nicolle Galyon. In 2020, she released her first single "Found It In You" to critical acclaim.

Since then, Kennedy has independently released a self titled EP, giving fans a more full sense of who she is as an artist and songwriter. The release also led to a record deal with Big Machine Records in 2021.  

Kennedy's bright personality has resonated just as much as her music, as the singer hosts her own show on Apple Music Country. Titled The Tiera Show, the program sees Kennedy sharing her take on what's on the rise in country music with a very personal touch.

Jackson Dean

Another artist making his Stagecoach debut this year, Jackson Dean has been winning over country music fans with his outlaw style and unique, gritty voice. He's already scored a top 5 hit with his debut single, "Don't Come Lookin,'" which reached No. 3 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart.

Dean's success has not been limited to just the charts, either: "Don't Come Lookin'" was featured on the TV show 'Yellowstone,' and he's been included on a number of artists to watch lists including Spotify's Hot Country Artists to Watch in 2023, Amazon Music's 2023 Breakthrough Artists to Watch: Country Class, and CMT's Listen Up class of 2023.

After selling out his headlining debut in Nashville in January, Dean will spend the majority of the year headlining sold-out shows and supporting the likes of Luke Bryan, Eric Church, Parker McCullum, Lainey Wilson, and Jon Pardi.

Mackenzie Carpenter

After first seeing success as a co-writer on Lily Rose's breakthrough song, "Villain," Mackenzie Carpenter has since made a name for herself as an artist in her own right. The Georgia-born singer's down-home personality shines through in her fun country-pop tunes including the catchy cautionary tale "Don't Mess With Exes" and the heartbreaking ballad "Jesus, I'm Jealous" — all of which ultimately prove that she isn't afraid to be herself.

In less than a year since signing with Big Machine imprint Valory Music Co., Carpenter has enjoyed many career milestones, including a Grand Ole Opry debut and an invitation to CMT's Next Women of Country class of 2023. And just weeks before taking the Stagecoach stage, Carpenter released her debut self-titled EP. 

Breland

Since the release of his debut single "My Truck" in 2019, Breland has been making waves in the industry by stretching the boundaries of country music. The New Jersey native's sound is derived from a mix of hip-hop, R&B and gospel, while still remaining recognizably country — he even titled his debut album Cross Country.

Breland's feel-good, diverse sound has already helped him land collaborations with country superstars, including Sam Hunt, Keith Urban and Dierks Bentley. His single with the latter, "Beers On Me" (also featuring HARDY), scored Breland his first No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, but he's proving to make an impact in his own right with more than 1 billion streams to date.

This year marks Breland's second year in a row on the Stagecoach stage, as he performed at the Late Night at Palomino after-party in 2022.

Bella White

Bella White brings a fresh perspective to an old-time sound. The Canadian artist serves audiences traditional bluegrass sounds with a clear, powerful voice.

White's voice, however, is not her only strength. She's also a skilled instrumentalist, as she was raised in a musical household and was drawn to the mandolin and banjo early on in her life. 

Following the success of her debut album Just Like Leaving, White signed to Rounder Records in 2021. Just ahead of her Stagecoach performance, White released her second album, Among Other Things, on which she explores heartbreak and a wider breadth of sounds, weaving drums and electric guitars into her traditional-sounding strings.

Kameron Marlowe

After a short stint on 'The Voice' in 2018, Kameron Marlowe began paving his own way in Nashville. The singer has made a name for himself with his signature smoky voice, while making sure his music is a true reflection of who he is.

Marlowe gained traction with his first independent release, 2019's "Giving You Up," which helped him land a record deal with Sony Music Nashville in 2020. He's since released his debut album, 2022's We Were Cowboys, and has sold out shows across the country — including his hometown of Charlotte, N.C.

Marlowe nods to his home state in his latest release, "Take Me Home," in which he grapples with the changes that come along with success: "I hate feeling like I'm someone / That I've never been before / Take me home to Carolina / I don't wanna be here anymore," he sings.

Morgan Wade

A trailblazing country singer with an edge, Morgan Wade has captivated audiences with the striking vulnerability of her music. Wade takes her experiences with heartbreak, mental health and addiction and crafts them into songs that stick with listeners.

Wade's voice borders on the edge of country and rock, which makes her moving lyrics all the more affecting. That is particularly true on her breakout track, "Wilder Days," which takes listeners through the raw emotion of finding the right person at the wrong time.

Since the 2021 release of Wade's album Reckless, she has been touring nonstop, both in the U.S. and overseas. Wade's Stagecoach performance is one of over 65 tour dates for 2023, giving fans across the country and around the world a chance to experience her powerful music live. 

Tre Burt

Folk artist Tre Burt uses his storytelling prowess to tell the stories of the moment, amplified by his rootsy sound. Burt engages audiences with tracks like "Under the Devil's Knee," a protest song written during the upheaval of 2020, a year during which he found musical inspiration in the chaos surrounding him.

Since hitting the scene, Burt has performed with artists including Nathanial Ratecliff and Margo Price, and has become a staple at folk festivals around the country. Burt expanded on his deeply affecting sound with his second album, You, Yeah, You, which arrived in 2021; with his powerful delivery on stage and on record, he's been labeled a "storyteller and musical philosopher," and a "troubadour" blazing his own path.

Jaime Wyatt

Jaime Wyatt's success has been long and hard-earned. The singer/songwriter entered the music business when she was just a teen, and the now 37-year-old has kept her nose to the grindstone ever since. Her years have been colored with late nights in honky tonks, addiction, and recovery, and she details it all in her traditional country music.

Wyatt's 2020 release, Neon Cross, challenged the genre, as the singer examined her identity as a queer woman, and positioned herself as a true outlaw in the landscape of the industry. In 2021, she released a merch line with a portion of the proceeds benefiting G.L.I.T.S, an organization that addresses systematic discrimination of LGBTQIA+ individuals. In being true to herself, Wyatt has provided a beacon of hope for queer artists and fans alike.

Kaitlin Butts

Kaitlin Butts has made a habit out of being a good listener, crafting the stories she hears into fun, innovative country songs. Like many of her Stagecoach cohorts, Butts has a versatile sound, drawing in influences from rock and 90's emo music — but the baseline is always undeniably country.

While Butts has been releasing music since 2015's Same Hell, Different Devil, this past year has been a whirlwind for the budding star. Her second album, What Else Can She Do, landed in the top 10 of Billboard's Americana Albums chart; the title track earned a spot on Rolling Stone's "100 Best Songs of 2022" list.

Within a span of six months, Butts played the Ryman Auditorium and made her Grand Ole Opry debut, and has opened for fellow Stagecoacher Morgan Wade as well as playing several other festivals.

American Aquarium

American Aquarium, led by BJ Barham, incorporates elements of country, folk and rock music into their thought-provoking music.The group's lyrics wrestle with some of life's biggest problems and tell delicate, personal stories.

The band's latest record, Chicamacomico, is a journey through the lead singer's personal losses. The album is a departure from the band's previously harder, rock-leaning sound, presenting more stripped-down tracks that lean more on Barnham's stirring vocals. Even so, Chicamacomico has been hailed as their best album yet. 

Over the span of a 20-year career, American Aquarium has cycled through many members; Barnham being a mainstay on lead vocals. The band has proven their staying power in the industry, and their presence at Stagecoach proves that the festival is a celebration of country music in all its forms.

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Dixie Chicks at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards

Photo by LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images

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Ashley McBryde, Ryan Hurd & More Country Artists Look Back On Dixie Chicks' 'Fly'

The Recording Academy speaks to current mainstream staples, Americana noise-makers and promising newcomers on the importance of 'Fly' in their own work and personal journeys

GRAMMYs/Sep 4, 2019 - 10:04 pm

The impact of the Dixie Chicks goes far beyond album sales and touring figures. Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer have had an undeniable influence on much of modern country music, and in many instances, they were the driving force behind many of today’s artists. GRAMMY nominee Ashley McBryde felt the power the three women from Texas could have when she was just 11 or 12, attending her first-ever concert.

"The Dixie Chicks' Fly Tour was my first major concert. We lived so far in the hills we didn’t get to go to many concerts," recalls McBryde. "I asked my mother if I could stand in my chair, and she said, 'Only for the first couple songs. Don’t block anyone, honey.' The crowd roared 'Dixie Chicks! Dixie Chicks!' I looked at mom and said, 'I want this, mom.' She said, 'What, baby?' I answered, 'An arena full of people screaming my name. And I’m gonna have it.' My mother smiled and said, 'I believe you will, my sweet girl.'"

"So the Dixie Chicks' success meant everything to me. They showed me that we can do the damn thing," she adds. "Fly was a flawless record. There's not a single track you can skip. And for girls like me, who listened to it on repeat nonstop, that sound, those harmonies, that sass and drive, it seeped into our own sounds. It endures because it helped shaped the next generation of artists."

McBryde is certainly not alone. The Recording Academy spoke with many current mainstream staples, Americana noise-makers and promising newcomers for a track-by-track commentary on select tracks and the importance of Fly on their own work and personal journeys.

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"Ready to Run"

Carly Pearce: "Ready to Run" was an iconic song for me and one of the songs that I sang over and over. Growing up, I remember hearing it and thinking, "Wow, this is the kind of music I want to make." Also, no one sings like Natalie! The Dixie Chicks paved the way for women in country music, and I’m still inspired by their music today. I can only hope to inspire others the way "Ready to Run" and The Dixie Chicks have inspired me.

"If I Fall You're Going Down with Me"

Gone West (Colbie Caillat, Justin Young, Jason Reeves and Nelly Joy): We love the high energy vibe that is felt in "If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me," even though it's still very organically produced. The creative background vocals and hooky fiddle lines, as well as creative chord changes, truly takes the listener on a ‘falling in love’ rollercoaster journey. You can truly feel the girls emotions conveyed in every single word that's sung with conviction which is refreshing! Falling in love should be flirtatious and fun, which is exactly how this track feels to us.

"Cowboy Take Me Away"

Gwen Sebastian: I believe while the album was ahead of its time, it still maintains a classic approach on what country music stands for, which is realness in the lyrics. I can't but help to sing along to the infectious melody, and as a female, I have a tendency to fantasize that there's a ‘hero’ to take me away from the real world. I think every girl wants to be rescued every now and then. The band were ‘outlaws’ in their lyrics and melodies, yet were able to be mainstream which is a difficult thing to accomplish.

"Cold Day in July"

Ryan Hurd: I bought this album on vinyl for Maren [Morris] for Christmas, so we sat and listened through it again one night at home. It's timeless, and it’s familiar and still such a stunning piece of work. "Cold Day in July" is one of those songs that seems so obvious. It’s one of those "how did I not think of that" songs. It’s the kind of song that makes country music special and makes me so excited for their new project.

"Goodbye Earle"

Runaway June (Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland, and Jennifer Wayne): It took a band as big as the Chicks to record "Goodbye Earl" and give it the personality it had. The song was ahead of its time, and I can’t imagine another band recording it and attributing as much as the Chicks had.

"Hello Mr. Heartache"

Cam: I love the throwback shuffle. It reminds me of country my grandparents would listen to, so it immediately earned a place in my heart. Casually talking to your heartache like it’s an old, unwanted friend is so brilliantly country, and to set the whole thing to dancing music, it puts humor and acceptance in it. For a teenager constantly overwhelmed by emotions, it felt real nice to have a name for that heartbreak process and be able to laugh and dance my way through it.

I was around 13 or so, at a big outdoor swim meet in the heat of summer in California and a friend started singing "Wide Open Spaces."  I was like, "What is that?" They said, "You haven’t heard of the Dixie Chicks?," and started rattling off song titles and singing the hooks from hits. I went and bought Fly on CD and sat in my room, absorbing the music while pouring over each page of the album booklet. I loved the sounds, their voices, the lyrics, but I don’t think I realized till I was older that it was the confident delivery that was something I needed. No matter the situation (heartbreak, murder, not ready to get married), they sounded so unwaveringly clear about how they were feeling.

"Don't Waste Your Heart"

SmithField (Jennifer Fiedler and Trey Smith)Fly was such an iconic album! Being a duo that relies so much on harmony in our music, the Dixie Chicks were such an example to us both growing up of the importance of having voices that complement each other in a group/duo act. "Don’t Waste Your Heart" is such a dynamic song in the way that the single vocal transitions in to three-part harmonies at the top of the chorus and creates a true moment. The undeniable heart and angst in Natalie's lead vocal also really sets it over the top. We strive to create moments like that in every piece of music we record.

"Sin Wagon"

Mickey Guyton: Personally, when that song came out, I was quite young. "Mattress dancin'" was a new term for me. But what I love about this song is the fact that they were singing their truth. No one is perfect. We all have our vices. And they sang about it in this song proudly. I just loved them, and they were an amazing addition to all the amazing women I loved listening to growing up. In today's environment, however, I can tell you that they mean the world to me. The Dixie Chicks inspire me to live my truth. They were living their truth when it wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do. They were standing for what they believed in when it was looked down upon. Today, I think that is badass, and I wish I understood the importance of what they were doing back then.

This album was about grown-ass women doing grown-ass things and dealing with grown-ass problems. People want real, and that is why they will always influence modern music. They were real. They said what everyone else was thinking.

"This album was about grown-ass women doing grown-ass things and dealing with grown-ass problems. People want real, and that is why they will always influence modern music. They were real. They said what everyone else was thinking."

"Without You"

Jenna Paulette: The Dixie Chicks have always been a huge inspiration for me. Being from Texas, I felt they were telling every Western girl's story. They were the voice of the country music I fell in love with. I know every word to the Fly album, I remember singing "Without You" at the top of my lungs in the middle of my favorite creek at our ranch and feeling like I had been through what they were singing about even though I was wayyy to young to know that kind of heartbreak. That album, top to bottom is one of the greatest country albums ever, it still challenges me to be a better artist and create music that resonates with people like it did with me.

"Some Days You Gotta Dance"

Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum: This song always puts a smile on my face and immediately makes want to dance. Several years after it was released, I remember singing this song on Nashville’s Lower Broadway making everyone in the bar do the same!

"Hole in My Head"

Aubrie Sellers: The Dixie Chicks made a career out of being daring. Fly as a whole was a dynamic statement of independence, pairing great songs with gutsy performances. Here were three women who weren’t afraid to grind some gears and stick up for what they believe in at a time when it wasn’t as trendy. Covering a song like "Hole in My Head" was a shake-up in a genre that sorely needed them, and for girls like myself growing up at the time, it was a battle cry to live a little louder and embrace your rough edges. Their affinity for great songs is what always kept me coming back for more, and this one was written by one of my all-time favorites Buddy Miller, the king of raw soul and unaffected songwriting. 

"Heartbreak Town"

James Barker of James Barker Band: I think there’s a whole generation of writers and artists in Nashville that were raised on this album in its entirety. The Dixie Chicks did such a great job of blending their musicianship with deep, but still very country, lyrics. They didn’t shy away from speaking about the negative sides of any situation, and this song specifically speaks about the down side to chasing your creative dream. It’s funny, because when I went back and listened to this song, after not hearing it for probably 10 years, it really opened my eyes. It was a bit of a "holy crap, that’s heavy" moment. Their portal of emotion is bang-on.

"Let Him Fly"

Jamie Lin Wilson: I got a guitar Christmas of 2000 after watching the Dixie Chicks' Houston show on the Fly tour. My cousin and I bought tickets on a whim, and a few weeks later she gave me my first instrument. To say this record had a profound influence on my life is an understatement. I sat in my room and learned every song I could in the key of D, since those were the only chords I knew. "Let Him Fly" is in the key of D. I remember sitting there, figuring out that picking part in the beginning, feeling like I had figured out a new language. I could play music. I never looked back. The songs of the Dixie Chicks inspired girls all over the world to pick up a guitar, to sing, to use our voices and be heard. I’m sure I would have found my way here eventually, but I’m so glad I made that drive to Houston that night.

'Fly' Away: Dixie Chicks' Landmark Album Turns 20

A composite image collage featuring images of Taylor Swift in (L-R) 2023, 2008 and 2012.
(L-R) Taylor Swift in 2023, 2008 and 2012.

Photos (L-R): Buda Mendes/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Clear Channel

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Songbook: An Era-By-Era Breakdown Of Taylor Swift's Journey From Country Starlet To Pop Phenomenon

Upon the arrival of Taylor Swift's 'The Tortured Poets Department,' take a deep dive into her discography and see how each album helped her become the genre-shifting superstar she is today.

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2024 - 09:32 pm

Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 19 to reflect the release of The Tortured Poets Department.

The world now knows Taylor Swift as a global pop superstar, but back in 2006, she was just a doe-eyed country prodigy. Since then, she's released 11 studio albums, re-recorded four as "Taylor's Version," and cultivated one of the most feverish fan bases in music. Oh, and she's also won 14 GRAMMY Awards, including four for Album Of The Year — the most ever won by an artist.

Swift has become one of music's most notable shapeshifters by refusing to limit herself to one genre, moving between country, pop, folk and beyond. A once-in-a-lifetime generational storyteller, one could argue that she is music's modern-day maverick, constantly evolving both her music and the culture around her.

Every album era has seen Swift reinvent herself over and over, which has helped pave the way for artists to explore other musical avenues. In turn, Swift hasn't just become one of the biggest artists of all time — she's changed pop music altogether.

To celebrate Taylor Swift's newest era with The Tortured Poets Department, GRAMMY.com looks back on all of her albums (Taylor's Versions not included) and how each era shaped her remarkable career.

Taylor Swift: Finding Her Place In Music

In a genre dominated by men, the odds were already stacked against Swift when she first broke into country music as a teenage female artist. The thing that differentiated her from other writers — and still does to this day — is her songwriting. She didn't want to be just "another girl singer" and knew writing her own songs would be what set her apart. 

Written throughout her adolescence, Taylor Swift was recorded at the end of 2005 and finalized by the time Swift finished her freshman year of high school. Serving as a snapshot of Swift's life and teenhood, she avoided songwriting stereotypes typically found in country music. Instead, she wanted to capture the years of her life while they still represented what she was going through, writing about what she was observing and experiencing, from love and friendship to feeling like an outsider. 

As a songwriter, Taylor Swift set the tone for what would be expected of her future recordings — all songs were written by her, some solely and others with one or two co-writers. One writer in particular, Liz Rose, applauded Swift's songwriting capabilities, stating that she was more of an "editor" for the songs because Swift already had such a distinct vision. 

The album's lead single, "Tim McGraw," an acoustic country ballad inspired by Swift knowing her relationship was going to end, represents an intricate part of Swift's songwriting process; meticulously picking apart her emotions to better understand them. With its follow-up, "Our Song" — which spent six consecutive weeks on the top of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart — she became the youngest person to solely write and sing a No. 1 country single; she also became the first female solo artist in country music to write or co-write every song on an album. 

Although Swift's eponymous debut is underappreciated now — even lacking its own set on Swift's Eras TourTaylor Swift's forthcoming rerecording is arguably the most anticipated by fans, who are eager to hear the songs with the singer's current and more refined vocals. Still, for fans who haven't properly explored Taylor Swift, it's easy to tie together Swift's earlier work to her current discography. 

On the track "A Place In This World," a song she wrote when she was just 13, Swift sings about not fitting in and trying to find her path. While her songwriting has developed and matured, feeling like an outsider and carving her own path is a theme she still writes about now, as seen on Midnights' "You're On Your Own, Kid." 

Even as a new country artist, critics claimed that she "mastered" the genre while subsequently ushering it to a new era — one that would soon see Swift dabble in country-pop. 

Fearless: Creating A Different Kind Of Fairytale

If Taylor Swift was the soundtrack to navigating the early stages of teenhood, Fearless is Swift's coming-of-age record. More than its predecessor, Fearless blurs the line between country and pop thanks to crossover hits like "Love Story" and "You Belong With Me," yet still keeps the confessional attributes known in country songwriting. 

Most of Fearless is Swift coming to terms with what she believed love to be. On the album's liner notes, Swift says Fearless is about "living in spite" of the things that scare you, like falling in love again despite being hurt before or walking away and letting go. The 2008 version of Taylor wanted to "believe in love stories and prince charmings and happily ever after," whereas in Swift's Fearless (Taylor's Version) liner notes, she looks back on the album as a diary where she was learning "tiny lessons" every time there was a "new crack in the facade of the fairytale ending she'd been shown in the movies." 

Much of Fearless also sees Swift being reflective and nostalgic about adolescence, like in "Never Grow Up" and "Fifteen." Still wistful and romantic, the album explores Swift's hopes for love, as heard in the album's lead single "Love Story," which was one instance where she was "dramatizing" observations instead of actually experiencing them herself. 

Unlike the slow-burn of Taylor Swift, Fearless went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and stayed there for eight consecutive weeks. It won Swift's first Album Of The Year GRAMMY in 2010, at the time making her the youngest person to win the accolade at age 20. To date, it has sold 7.2 million copies in America alone. It might not be the romantic tale Swift dreamed of growing up, but her sophomore album signalled that bigger things were to come.

Speak Now: Proving Her Songwriting Prowess

Everything that happened after the success of Fearless pushed Swift from country music's best-kept secret to a mainstream star. But this meant that she faced more publicity and criticism, from naysayers who nitpicked her songwriting and vocals to the infamous Kanye West incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.

For the first time since becoming an artist, she was forced to reckon with the concept of celebrity and how turning into one — whether she wanted it or not — informed her own writing and perception of herself. No longer was she the girl writing songs like "Fifteen" in her bedroom — now she was working through becoming a highly publicized figure. Speak Now is the answer to those growing pains. 

Along with having more eyes on her, Swift also felt pressured to maintain her persona as a perfect young female role model amid a time when her peers like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato were attempting to rebrand to be more mature and sexier. During her NYU commencement speech in 2022, she reflected on this era of her life as one of intense fear that she could make a mistake and face lasting consequences, so the songs were masked in metaphors rather than directly addressing adult themes in her music. But that also resulted in some of her most poignant lyrics to date.

Read More: For The Record: How Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now' Changed Her Career — And Proved She'll Always Get The Last Word

Writing the entire album herself, Swift used Speak Now to prove her songwriting prowess to those who questioned her capabilities. Much like her previous two albums, Swift included songs that were both inspired by her own life and being a fly on the wall. The album's title track pulled from the saying, "Speak now or forever hold your peace," inspired by a friend's ex-boyfriend getting engaged; meanwhile, "Mean" was everything Swift wanted to say to a critic who was continuously harsh about her vocals.

Retrospective and reflective, Speak Now is an album about the speeches she could've, would've and should've said. From addressing the aforementioned VMA incident in the forgiving "Innocent" to a toxic relationship in "Dear John," Speak Now also hinted that her rose-colored glasses were cracked, but Swift (and her songwriting) was only becoming stronger because of it.

Red: Coming Into Her Own

Highly regarded as Swift's magnum opus, Red sees the singer shed the fairytale dresses and the girl-next-door persona to craft a body of work that has now been deemed as her first "adult" record. On Red, Swift focused on emotions evoked from a hot-and-cold relationship, one that forced her to experience "intense love, intense frustration, jealousy and confusion" — all feelings that she'd describe as "red." 

Unlike most of her previous writing that had been inspired by happy endings and fairytales, Red explores the lingering pain and loss that can embed itself within despite trying your hardest to let go. In her liner notes, she references Pablo Neruda's poem "Tonight I Can Write," stating that "Love is so short, forgetting is so long" is the overarching theme for the album. She plays with time — speeding it up in "Starlight," dabbling in the past in "All Too Well," and reframing it in "State of Grace" — to better understand her experiences. 

After releasing country-pop records, Red toed the line between genres more than ever before. Swift leaned further into the full pop territory by working with esteemed producers Max Martin and Shellback for the dubstep-leaning track "I Knew You Were Trouble," the punchy lead single "We Are Never Getting Back Together," and the bouncy anthem "22." But even when the pop power players weren't involved, her country stylings still leaned more pop across the album, as further evidenced with the racing deep cut "Holy Ground" and the echoing title track. 

The slight change of direction became polarizing for critics and fans alike. Following the more country-influenced Speak Now, some critics and fans found the pop songs on Red were too pop and the lyrics were too repetitive, possibly indicating that she might be selling out. If that wasn't enough, Red became an era where Swift's personal life went from speculation to tabloid fodder, with misogynistic headlines and diluting her work to just "writing about her exes." It's an era that would eventually inspire many tracks on Red's successor, 1989, like "Blank Space" and "Shake It Off."

Commercially, Red debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and sold 1.2 million copies in its first week, becoming the fastest-selling country album and making Swift the first female artist to have three consecutive albums spend six or more weeks at the top of the chart. The impact of Red extended beyond its own success, too. Often mentioned as a record that inspired a generation of artists from Troye Sivan to Conan Gray, Swift's confessional, soul-bearing authenticity set a new standard for straightforward pop music. 

1989: Reinventing Into A Pop Genius

The night Red lost the GRAMMY for Album Of The Year in 2014, Swift decided that her next album would be a full-on pop record. After years of identifying as a country artist and flirting with pop, Swift departed her roots to reinvent herself, no matter what her then-label or critics had to say. And in true Swiftian fashion, turning into a pop artist didn't just prove her genre-shapeshifting capabilities — it further solidified her as an artist who is at her best when she freely creates to her desires and refuses to adhere to anyone.

1989 was lauded by critics for its infectious synth-pop that was reminiscent of the 1980s, yet still had a contemporary sound. Swift opted to lean more into radio-friendly hits, which resulted in songs like "Style," "Wildest Dreams," "Blank Space," and "Shake It Off," all of which became singles. And where some might trade a hit or two at the expense of their artistic integrity, Swift didn't falter — instead, her lyrics were just as heartfelt and intimate as they were on prior albums.

After exploring pop-leaning sonics she first found with Red, Swift worked with Martin and Shellback again on most of 1989. This reinvention brought new (and very important) collaborators as well. Swift's now-frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff credits her as the first person to take a chance on him as a producer with "I Wish You Would" and "Out Of The Woods"; both tracks exemplified how future Antonoff-produced songs would sound on albums like reputation, Lover and Midnights.

At the time, 1989 became Swift's best-selling album to date. It sold nearly 1.3 million copies within release week in the U.S., debuting atop the Billboard 200 and reigning for 11 non-consecutive weeks. The album also earned Swift several awards — including her second Album Of The Year GRAMMY, which made her the first female artist to ever win the award twice. 

Following the release of 1989, Swift became a cultural juggernaut, and the album has had an omnipresence in music since. Swift didn't just normalize blending genres, but proved that you can create a sound that is uniquely yours by doing so. In turn, Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and more pop stars have refused to conform or stick to what they've done prior. 

reputation: Killing The Old Taylor

For years, Swift was on a strict two-year cycle — she'd release an album one year, tour the next, and then release a new album the following year. But following the heightened scrutiny and highly publicized tabloid drama that followed the end of the 1989 era, Swift completely disappeared for a year. She stayed away from public appearances, didn't do any press, and missed the album schedule fans became accustomed to. It wasn't until summer 2017 when she returned from her media (and social media) blackout to unveil the fitting title for her new album: reputation.

Born as a response to the naysayers and name-callers, reputation follows Swift shedding her public image — which includes the pressure to be perfect, the drama, and the criticism — by declaring, "There will be no further explanation. There will just be reputation." Leaning on the same tongue-in-cheek songwriting techniques she used while penning "Blank Space," Swift wrote from the mindset of how the public perceived her.

When Swift released the lead single "Look What You Made Me Do," a song she initially wrote as a poem about not trusting specific people, many assumed the album would center on vengeance and drama. Although Swift said that the album has its vindictive moments — even declaring that the "old Taylor" is dead on the bridge of "Look What You Made Me Do" — it's a vulnerable record for her. Swift described reputation as a bait-and-switch; at their core, the songs are about finding love in the darkest moments. 

Swift still remained in the pop lane with reputation, largely leaning on Antonoff and the Martin/Shellback team. The sound almost mirrored the scrutiny Swift faced in the years prior — booming electropop beats, maximalist production and pulsing synthesizers dominate, particularly on "End Game," "I Did Something Bad," and "Ready For It…?" But the "old Taylor" isn't entirely gone on songs like "Call It What You Want," "So It Goes…" and "New Year's Day," where she lets her guard down to write earnest love odes.

Even after Swift spent some time away from the spotlight, the public didn't immediately gravitate toward her return. And even despite matching the 1.2 million first-week sales of her previous releases, some concluded that the album was her first commercial failure when compared to 1989. With time, though, it became clear that the response to reputation became muddled with the public's overall perception of her at the time — some even claimed that Swift was ahead of her time with the album's overall sound.

For her 2023 TIME Person of the Year profile, Swift described reputation as a "goth-punk moment of female rage at being gaslit by an entire social structure." For years, she felt the pressure to be "America's Sweetheart" and to never step out of line. Writing reputation became a lifeline following the events that catalyzed it  — a way to shed the so-called snakeskin and make peace with however the public wanted to view her. 

Lover: Stepping Into The Daylight

After finding love amongst chaos with reputation, Swift was learning to deal with the anxiety and fear of losing her partner — became a major theme of another aptly titled album, Lover. Both sonically and visually, Lover was a complete change from reputation. After touring reputation, Swift found that her fans saw her as "a flesh-and-blood human being," inspiring her to be "brave enough to be vulnerable" because her fans were along with her. Stepping away from the dark and antagonistic themes around reputation encouraged Swift to step into the light and be playful with her work on Lover.

Swift also found a new sense of creativity within this new mindset, one where she aimed to still embed playful themes in her songwriting but with less snark than that of "Blank Space" and "Look What You Made Me Do." Leaning into Lover being a "love letter to love," Swift explored every aspect of it. Tracks like "Paper Rings" and "London Boy" exude a whimsical energy, even if they center on more serious themes like marriage and commitment. Other songs, including "Death By A Thousand Cuts" and "Cornelia Street," are Swift at her most vulnerable, reflecting on a love lost and grappling with the extreme worry that comes when you could potentially lose someone. 

Looking at Lover retrospectively, it's an album that almost symbolizes a bookend in her discography. She was playful yet poignant, picking apart her past lyrics and feelings and looking at them with the perspective of someone who was once on top of the world, hit rock bottom, and survived in spite of it. This evolution is mentioned throughout Lover, particularly in a direct callback to 2012's Red, "Daylight," which sees her describe her love as "golden" rather than "burning red." 

Lover also marked the first time Swift divulged into politics and societal issues, like campaigning against Donald Trump, releasing the Pride-infused "You Need To Calm Down," and feeling disillusioned by the political climate with "Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince." Swift's documentary Miss Americana explores this change further, discussing how she regrets not being vocal about politics and issues prior, in addition to opening up about her body image issues and mental health struggles.

Lover became Swift's sixth No. 1 album in America, making her the first female artist to achieve the feat. But Lover was more than any accolades could reflect — it was Swift's transitional album in many ways, notably marking the first album that she owned entirely herself following leaving Big Machine Records for Republic Records in 2018.

folklore: Looking Beyond Her Personal Stories

After the pandemic started and Swift cancelled her Lover Fest, she spent the early stages of quarantine reading and watching a myriad of films. Without exactly setting out to create an album, she began dreaming of fictional stories and characters with various narrative arcs, allowing her imagination to run free. The result became folklore, 2020's surprise archetypal quarantine album.

Crafting a world with characters like the folklore love triangle between those in "betty" and "august," as well as Rebekah Harkness from "the last great american dynasty" (who once lived in Swift's Rhode Island mansion), was Swift's way of venturing outside her typical autobiographical style of writing. She'd see visceral images in her mind — from battleships to tree swings to mirrored disco balls — and turned them into stories, sometimes weaving in her own personal narrative throughout, or taking on a narrator role and speaking from the perspective of someone she had never met. 

She worked remotely with two producers — again working with her right-hand man Jack Antonoff, and first-time collaborator Aaron Dessner from The National. Some songs, like "peace," were recorded in just one take, capturing the essence and fragility in the song's story, whereas the lyrics for the sun-drenched "august" were penned on the spot as Swift was in her makeshift home studio in Los Angeles.

Another aspect that separated folklore from her previous work was the obvious decision not to create hits made for radio play, so much so that Dessner claimed that she made an anti-pop record at a time when radio wanted clear "bops." Sonically, it ventured into genres Swift hadn't explored much outside of a few folkier tracks on Lover. Rather than relying on mostly electronic elements, Swift, Antonoff and Dessner weaved in soft pianos, ethereal strings, and plucky guitars.

folklore's impact on the zeitgeist at a time where everyone was stuck at home helped shape people's quarantine experience. Fans rejoiced at having songs to comfort them during difficult times, and artists like Maya Hawke, Gracie Abrams, and Sabrina Carpenter credit folklore for inspiring them to create and be even more emotionally honest in their songwriting. After its release, folklore became the best-selling album of 2020 after selling 1.2 million records. At the 2021 GRAMMYs, folklore took home Album Of The Year, making her the fourth artist in history to win three times in the Category. 

evermore: Embracing Experimentation

It was exciting enough for Swifties to experience one surprise album drop from Swift, an artist who typically has an entire album campaign calculated. So when evermore was released just six months after folklore, fans were in shock. 

Like its (literally) folklorian sister, evermore was a surprise release at the end of 2020, marking the first time Swift didn't have distinct "eras" between albums. She felt like there was something "different" with folklore, stating in a social media post that making it was less like she was "departing" and more like she was "returning" to the next stage of her discography. In turn, the album served as a similar escape for Swift as folklore did.

Bridging together the same wistful and nostalgic themes as heard on its predecessor, evermore sees Swift venture even further into escapism. She explores more stories and characters, some based in fiction like "dorothea," and some real, like "marjorie," written in dedication to Swift's grandmother. 

Evermore follows folklore's inclusion of natural imagery and motifs, like landscapes, skies, ivy, and celestial elements. In contrast to the fairytale motifs and happy endings of Fearless, evermore saw Swift become fixated on "unhappy" endings — stories of failed marriages ("happiness"), lifeless relationships ("tolerate it"), and one-time flings ("'tis the damn season"). 

Sonically, evermore is a slight departure from its sister record; where folklore relies on more alt-leaning and indie-tinged sounds, evermore takes the sonics from all of Swift's past records — from pop to country to indie rock — and features all of them on one album. Country songs like "cowboy like me" and "no body, no crime" reaches back to Swift's earlier work in narrative building, seamlessly crafting a three-party story with ease. "Closure" is a "skittering" track that has the same energy as tracks like Lover's "I Forgot That You Existed," whereas the ballad "champagne problems" is thematically reminiscent of Swift's Speak Now track "Back To December" where she takes responsibility for her lover's heartache. 

Working mostly with Dessner on evermore, Swift was emboldened to continue creating and opted to embrace whatever came naturally to them rather than limiting themselves to a sound. Swift felt a "quiet conclusion" after finishing up evermore, describing that it was more about grappling with endings of all "sizes and shapes," and the record represented a chapter closing. Even so, its poetic lyricism and mystical storytelling cleverly foreshadowed what was to come with subsequent albums, particularly The Tortured Poets Department.

Midnights: Encapsulating Her Artistic Magic

After coming out of the folklorian woods following folklore and evermore, fans and critics alike were intrigued to see what direction Swift would take on her next studio album. On Midnights, Swift leaves behind indie folk sounds and returns to the pop production of 1989 and Lover.

Her most conceptual album to date, Midnights charts 13 sleepless nights and explores five themes, from self-hatred and revenge to "what if" fantasies, falling in love, and falling apart. They are the things that keep her up at night, like the self-critiquing in "Anti-Hero," her rise to fame in "You're on Your Own, Kid," and the anxiety of falling in love again in "Labyrinth." Similarly to Swift's cheeky songwriting style that sees her create caricatures of herself in songs like "Blank Space" and "Look What You Made Me Do," she doubles down on claims she's "calculated" on "Mastermind," a song about devising a plan for her and her lover. 

Although the album is a departure from the two pandemic sister albums, the overall creation process didn't differ too much. In addition to working alongside Antonoff (and bringing Dessner in for the bonus-track-filled 3am Edition), Swift's worldbuilding is still the throughline that connects Midnights and Swift's recent albums, whether she's dreaming of a Parisian escape in "Paris" or using war imagery as a metaphor for the struggle of love in "The Great War."

Read More: 5 Takeaways From Taylor Swift's New Album 'Midnights'

Following the success with folklore and evermore, Swift's intrigue was at a then-all-time high upon the release of Midnights. Along with breaking several streaming records — including becoming the first album to exceed 700 million global streams in a week — it was Swift's 11th No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200, and was the highest-selling album of 2022 (and, remarkably, the second best-selling of 2023).

To say that Swift's celebrity has become otherworldly since the release of Midnights would be an understatement. Celebrating her genre-defying and varied discography through The Eras Tour has resulted in old songs having a resurgence, new inside jokes and Easter eggs within the fandom, and a plethora of new listeners being exposed to Swift's work. 

As a result, there has arguably never been more excitement for a Taylor Swift album than for The Tortured Poets Department — especially because the announcement came on the heels of her lucky 13th GRAMMY win in February. Midnights helped further solidify Swift's larger-than-life status at the finale of the 2024 GRAMMYs, too, as she became the only artist in history to win Album Of The Year four times. 

The Tortured Poets Department: A Grief-Stricken Poetic Odyssey

It’s been a while since Swift has penned a full-fledged breakup album. On The Tortured Poets Department, she navigates the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — after her long-term relationship ended. Taking a page from the release of folklore and evermore, she dropped a double album and announced The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology at 2 a.m. on release day. Throughout a total of 31 tracks, the prolific songwriter shelved the glittery pop radio-friendly tunes in favor of more subdued, synthy and heart-wrenching songs. 

On Instagram, Swift described the album as a collection of poetic songs that reflect the "events, opinions and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time," Swift pulled out the fountain and quill pens to craft songs about the "tortured poets" in her life — sometimes musing about lovers, sometimes taking aim at villains, and sometimes pointing the finger at herself. 

TTPD is also her most confessional album thus far. It pokes fun at so-called fans who overstep with her personal life ("But Daddy I Love Him"), says goodbye to a city that gave her a home ("So Long London"), and muses on how her own celebrity has stunted her growth ("Who's Afraid Of Little Old Me?"). To help explain this chapter of her life, Swift brings together a myriad of collaborators — from Stevie Nicks as fellow poetess, to duets with Florence Welch and Post Malone — and leans on real and fictional characters, like Clara Bow, Peter Pan ("Peter"), and Patti Smith.

In the same post, Swift declared that once she’s confessed all of her saddest stories, she’s able to find freedom. Yet The Tortured Poets Department (and its accompanying 15-track anthology) spends much time reflecting: she toys with her own lore, self-referencing past songs from albums like 1989 and poems from her reputation era. 

Fourteen years ago, Swift declared that she would never change, but she’ll never stay the same either. The Tortured Poets Department proves that in the throughline of Taylor Swift's many artistic eras is a commitment to exploration and a love of autobiographical lyricism.

All Things Taylor Swift

Chappell Roan at Coachella 2024 Weekend 1
Chappell Roan performs during Weekend 1 of Coachella 2024.

Photo: Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

interview

Chappell Roan's Big Year: The 'Midwest Princess' Examines How She Became A Pop "Feminomenon"

Just after Chappell Roan made her festival debut at Coachella, hear from the pop starlet about some of the defining moments of her career thus far — and how it all helped earn her a spot at one of music's biggest fests.

GRAMMYs/Apr 19, 2024 - 07:49 pm

Before this year, Chappell Roan had never even been to Coachella. Now, not only can she say she's attended — she's performed in the desert, too. 

Roan played an evening set on the Gobi Stage on April 12, and is set to return for Weekend 2. Fans clad in everything from cowboy boots, Sandy Liang-inspired bows and, perhaps most importantly, jorts, gathered to celebrate their shared love of Roan's radiance, karmic kink and gay cowgirl doctrine.  

Throughout her performance, bubbles breezed through the air as Roan belted out her infectious (and aptly titled) track "Femininomenon," which speaks to lover girls forced to live in an online-dating hellscape. "Ladies, you know what I mean?/ And you know what you need and so does he/ But does it happen? No!" Following collective screams of pure joy, the already enlivened crowd roused to match Roan beat-for-beat, shouting back in perfect unison, "Well, what we really need is a femininomenon!" 

In an era of bedroom pop and sad-girl music, Roan has been hailed by both critics and fans for bringing fun back to pop music. Along with her staunch sense of self, Roan's penchant for explicit lyrics that are equally parts introspective and horny makes her dance-pop anthems all the more infectious. 

Roan's ambitiously experimental debut album, 2023's The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess, cemented her status as one of the most exciting pop stars on the rise. While she only recently landed her first single on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Good Luck, Babe!," her rapidly growing fan base — and an opening slot on Olivia Rodrigo's sold-out GUTS World Tour — indicate that she's on her way to superstardom.

Perhaps part of Roan's magic is that it was all on her own terms. After parting ways with her first label, Atlantic Records, she built a loyal following as an independent artist before signing with Island Records last year. Even as a major label artist, she's determined to only do things her way; her indefatigable commitment to her craft — as well as writing her own rules when it comes to fashion and makeup — is precisely why her fans are so enraptured by both her music and persona. 

Her fearlessness was on full display during her first Coachella set, where the words emblazoned on her bodysuit read "Eat Me." She talks the talk, and walks the walk (in fabulous, knee-high boots, of course), matching her unabashed aesthetic with equally bold career moves; for one, the openers for her headlining tour are local drag queens.

With eyeliner winged to the heavens, near-perfect vocal stability and fiery curls ablaze, Roan's shimmering Coachella Weekend 1 performance proved that her stage presence is equally dynamic. And if she had any doubters, she had one thing to say to them: "B—, I know you're watching!" 

In between rehearsals for her Coachella debut, Roan took a look back on her journey to one of music's most coveted stages. Below, hear from Roan about five of the most impactful milestones in her career — so far. 

Releasing Her Debut Album, The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess

I ended up signing [with Island Records in 2023] because this project honestly got too big to be independent anymore. I just wasn't willing to give up anything, any creative control or for any amount of money. 

Being an independent artist was really special because I proved to myself that I could do all these hard things that I had never done. I built it with an entire friend group and many, many years of work. So it wasn't just me, but it proved a lot to me.

It proved I can make it through hard circumstances — with no money. You truly can. You do not need a label to do a lot of what an artist's career requires. You don't need a label to put on your own show, or make a music video, or even write a song, or find creative people. You don't need that s—t. I mean, a label is just money, you know? You don't need a lot of money to do this. To make it grow is, I think, where it takes a lot of money. That's what was difficult.

Music allows me to express anything, even things that I've never experienced before. It allows me to express queerness, even if it was only daydreams at that point. It allows me to express parts of me that I'm not even ready to accept yet.

I don't give a f— if you don't  f— with the music. You don't have to come to the concert. That's the whole point of it. You don't have to like it. I think throughout the year, I'm like, "What can I get away with?" Because right now it's pretty tame for what it is like to be a gay artist. But I just want to push it to see how far can I go — with the most controversial outfits or things to rile people up. I'm not really afraid to do that.

Having a song [like "Casual] with the lyric, "Knee deep in the passenger seat/ And you're eating me out," and it's being considered to go to radio. That's kind of a big thing to get away with. 

It's not even that big of a thing. What's that song? Is it Flo Rida? That's like, "Can you blow my whistle, baby/ whistle baby." Okay, that's obviously about like a f—ing blowjob. [Laughs.] No one cares about that. To me, I'm like, Let's talk about eating out on the radio. I actually think it has to be bleeped, but still, if I can get away with it, that's cool.

Feeling Financial Freedom & Stability

Not making money at all just sucked. But I learned how to do my own makeup and bedazzle and sew a little bit. I think that the scrappiness came from [the idea that] it's scrappy if it's fun. 

I think that's what kept me going — because if this wasn't fun, I would not even be here. But it was scrappy and fun, and it was with my friends. It didn't feel dire. I was also just working at a coffee shop, and I was a nanny, and I was working at a donut shop. I was doing part time jobs all on the side too. So it was all just rough [in the beginning].

I have freedom because now [singing] is my full-time job. It provides for me now. As the project grows, I can do bigger shows and be like, I want outfit changes now, and I want more lights, and I want confetti. I can afford confetti now! 

It's about expanding the universe in a thoughtful way. And not just like throwing a s— ton of money at things to make things look expensive or wear all this designer s— for no reason. 

I just try to look at how we are starting to gain momentum financially and see how can I intentionally use that to, one, pay the team in a way where they're not bare bones anymore, and two, [ask ourselves] how can we honor this project and this album and the queer community? Can we pay drag queens more? Can we bring drag on the road? Now, financially, doors have opened where we can walk through them with love and intention. Just recklessly, throwing money at s— to see if it works. 

Opening Olivia Rodrigo's Arena Tour

Olivia [Rodrigo] just asked. It was official, we went through our management. But I was like, Oh my God

Preparing a 40-minute set is a different vibe than headlining, obviously. You are going out to an audience that is not there for you and doesn't necessarily care if you're there or not.

This is, like, my fourth or fifth artist I've opened for. But for an arena tour, I just needed to gather my nerves. I think that's the difference between any other show. Like, F—, there's 20,000 people out there right now. I've never performed in front of that many people. I don't know what this emotion is, and I just have to tame it right now.

Standing Up For Herself Creatively, Even When There's Pushback

I stand up for myself, I would say, every day. Sometimes, you get this opportunity, a huge opportunity with a lot of money on the table. [Yet,] I'm just like, That just doesn't make sense creatively. That doesn't align with my values. I'm not doing that. 

One huge creative decision was I stood up and pushed the entire headlining Midwest Princess tour back to the fall. The album was supposed to come out while we were on tour. I was like, "This is a horrible idea!" 

That caused a big ruckus, but it ended up being fine, and I was right. I'm usually right. [Laughs.] It's like a mother with her kid — a mother knows best. I feel like [that] when it comes to the integrity of my project.

I know how it is to not be able to afford a ticket or even f—ing food. A concert ticket, a lot of times, means multiple meals for someone. I get it, I couldn't afford some artists' tickets. That's why it's really important to me to try to keep them as low as I can and my merch as low as I can. 

There's pushback of ticket prices being low and we're playing rooms that are so expensive. The fee to even play them is so expensive. So, you have to raise the ticket prices to just even be able to afford to play the room. There's always an argument [with my team] there, every tour. I'm in control of stuff and if I'm saying this is how it's going to be —- it's just going to be that way.

Performing At Coachella For The First Time 

[After the first weekend of Coachella] I am feeling very relieved. I was so stressed about many things. How is the outfit going to work? Will the crowd really be engaged? It went so well, I have no qualms with anything. I loved every second of it.

It feels like I am partying with [my fans]. I am not performing to them; I’m performing with them. [I want people to remember] a really fun, freeing show. Very campy but very meaningful too. 

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