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NASHVILLE (Billboard) - It's a steamy summer night on the banks of the Ohio River, and 18-year-old Taylor Swift, dressed in a green sundress and worn cowboy boots, is backstage for a meet- and-greet with her Cincinnati fans. The aging Riverbend Music Center has seen better days, but it's sold out for Swift's appearance with country trio Rascal Flatts.
She's swarmed by an army of mini-Taylors, all of whom emit high-pitched screams of glee at the sight of the singer. "She's so gorgeous," one teen says, as her friend stands on tippy toes and squeals, "I'm so excited!" Swift chats easily with her fans, giving each a personal moment: "You're tall, like me," she says to one. "I just noticed your necklace -- it's cute," she tells another.
For her preteen fans -- and there are plenty -- she drops to one knee and converses at eye level. Those who asked for hugs didn't receive an awkward, half-hearted embrace: Even the girl holding an "Ohio Loves Taylor" sign who nearly tackled Swift got a warm response. And so begins Swift's transition from rising country superstar -- her 2006 self-titled debut album has sold 3.4 million units, in addition to 7.5 million downloads of singles, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- to just plain ol' superstar.
Swift, who is up for female vocalist of the year, will perform at the CMA Awards, which will air November 12 on ABC. Her new album, "Fearless," will be out the preceding day via Big Machine Records.
Swift wrote a track on the album, "Change" -- which hit the market as part of AT&T's Team USA Olympic Soundtrack promotion this past summer -- to celebrate her independent label and its success.
"Being on a little record label, you have to fight harder than being on a bigger record label to be on award shows, to be a performer and a presenter and to get big tours and support," Swift says. "My record label had 12 employees when I put out my album and my single and I just kept looking around and thinking, 'Some day we are going to grow and this is going to change and we are going to have a fighting chance.'"
Swift finished the song the day after she won the Country Music Association's (CMA) Horizon Award in November 2007. "I looked over at Scott Borchetta, the president of my label, and saw him crying," she says.
For his part, Borchetta is appreciative of Swift's talent and her strong appeal to female fans. "She connects with women 8 to 38," he says.
The song "15" reinforces Borchetta's point. With lyrics that include, "In your life you'll do greater things than dating a boy on the football team" -- the track will connect with teens looking for hope and with adult women looking back.
"It's the most personal song I have ever written," Swift says. "My best friend and I met our freshman year of high school and our lives absolutely changed. I walked away from love and then I walked into a record label. I walked onto a tour, and that is how my story ended. Abigail, my best friend, got her heart ripped out and I was there and went through it with her, but I am really glad that I was able to write it down."
The album's first single, "Love Story," has been climbing the Hot Country Songs chart since it debuted at No. 25. The song, Swift says, "was actually written about a love that you've got to hide because you know, for whatever reason, it wouldn't go over well."
"White Horse," which is on "Fearless," was featured in the two-hour season premiere of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" earlier this fall.
"You should've seen tears streaming down my face when I got the phone call that they were going to use that song," Swift says with more than a hint of emotion. "I have never been that excited. This is my life's goal, to have a song on 'Grey's Anatomy.' My love of 'Grey's Anatomy' has never wavered. It's my longest relationship to date."
Of the song she says, "It's one of the songs that I am really proud of on the record because it's so sparse -- it's guitar, piano and cello ... it talks about falling in love and the fairy tales that you are going to have with this person, and then there is that moment where you realize that it is not going to happen. That moment is the most earth-shattering moment."
Looking ahead, although it's no easy trick for a country performer to conquer foreign territory, Swift's label and management team are laying the groundwork, lining up 2009 dates in the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan. But for now, Swift is honing her touring chops at home.
For Swift it still comes down to writing music from her heart.
"I'm absolutely consumed by this album, by creating it ... there is only one way that I know how to write songs, and that is about personal things that happen to me," says Swift, who, as on her first album, wrote or co-wrote every song. "It is amazing how many people come up to me and say, 'It's strange how completely this is what I am going through right now.' That is the coolest compliment somebody can give you."