Long before the globetrotting tours, the tabloid headlines, the Beatlesque frenzy that drove desperate parents to shell out $12,000 for concert tickets, Taylor Swift got a crucial career break in a Livonia parking lot.
In spring 2006, Swift was 16 years old when she made her first trip to metro Detroit. Beyond the fringes of Myspace and some corners of the country music business, he is virtually unknown.
But the Pennsylvania-born singer-songwriter is precocious, confident and ambitious. And he flew to Detroit to win and dine one of the most influential men in country radio.
It was at PF Chang’s on Haggerty Road that WYCD-FM program director Tim Roberts had his first encounter with the young woman who would go on to become one of music’s all-time superstars.
“At that dinner, he was the most charming, intelligent young adult I’ve ever met in my life,” Roberts said. “So far beyond her years, so mature in an intellectual way.”
Swift and Roberts were joined that night by Swift’s mother — her regular chaperone in those days — and Jack Purcell of Big Machine Records, the Nashville label that signed the promising young artist last year. Swift’s self-titled debut album was due later in 2006, and its first single, a tender bit of teen romance titled “Tim McGraw,” came first.
After eating at PF Chang’s, they went out to the parking lot. There, on the spur of the moment, Swift grabbed an acoustic guitar to perform a personal, impromptu set for the WYCD exec.
“I got in the car later with my wife,” Roberts recounted. “And I said, ‘Is it just me, or are those all monster hits?’ ”
Roberts immediately put “Tim McGraw” in heavy rotation on WYCD, becoming the first major market radio station in the United States to play Taylor Swift.
Detroit fans headed to Ford Field this weekend for Swift’s sold-out concert doubleheader should know — and be proud — that she has a deep, important history in southeast Michigan, including some early moments that proved vital to his career.
A few months after that PF Chang milestone, Swift played the first official tour date of her career, performing at Pine Knob, the summer venue then known as the DTE Energy Music Theater.
Swift was nowhere to be seen that night of August 25, 2006, but there she was — at the bottom of a bill featuring Phil Vassar and openers Emerson Drive and Steve Azar. Tickets for the amphitheater show are $10 and $20.
Still, the 16-year-old made sure concertgoers made their way to their seats to stand out: Swift began her set with an acoustic rendition of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” slyly teasing the audience in the backyard of the rapper.
Swift is a huge Eminem fan, and at dinner with Roberts last spring, she discussed her fascination with the movie “8 Mile” and its iconic 8 Mile Road namesake.
“We were blocks away from 8 Mile Road in that part of town,” Roberts recounted. “So I took him to Haggerty and 8 Mile, where there’s this giant Meijer shopping center.”
Leafy, suburban Northville doesn’t have the gritty Detroit atmosphere portrayed in Eminem’s film.
“He went, ‘This is 8 Mile?’ ” Roberts recalled with a laugh. “I told him, ‘Yeah, but it’s a little different if you go east here. The farther you go that way, the less it looks.”
‘I knew it was coming’
“Tim McGraw” was still climbing the charts in 2006 when Detroit Lions staff began planning details for the team’s traditional Thanksgiving Day game.
“We’re looking for an anthem singer, which is always a big deal, because that game is nationally broadcast,” said Brandon Bissell, who oversees the Lions’ game-day entertainment. “We always want to make sure we have someone good for that moment.”
Bissell and his colleagues kicked around potential performer names.
“But honestly none of them jumped off the page until Taylor came out,” he said. “Back then, he only had one song. That’s the only radio play he gets.”
However, one thing about the young country singer stands out.
“In sports, we’re always trying to reach a somewhat younger demographic,” said Bissell, who now handles entertainment production for the NFL, MLB and other leagues. “You have a cute, all-American looking girl next door, and it’s kind of fitting, especially on a holiday like Thanksgiving. It worked all the way around.
And so on Nov. 23, 2006, at Ford Field — where this weekend she will hold court for 100,000 fans — the 16-year-old Swift, blond ringlets on her shoulders, is ready for her national television debut.
“I remember talking to him on the sidelines,” Bissell recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, this is cool. You take off, you get this hit. Has it been a whirlwind? Is it difficult for you to manage this new popularity?’ ”
Swift doesn’t skip a beat.
“Even with the straight face and confidence of a 16-year-old on the planet, he said: ‘Oh, no, I knew it was coming. I already have 200 songs written. It’s just a moment,’” Bissell recalled. “He’s gone too far down that path.”
Risa Balayem, then director of communications at Ford Field, watched as Swift delivered “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“He’s like a little kid there. His guitar is bigger than him,” Balayem said. “Inside Ford Field, watching him stand there on the 50-yard line, it’s like: ‘What is this?!'”
Swift and her family were treated to a Thanksgiving spread, complete with turkey, in a Ford Field suite.
“It was a great day,” Bissell said. “And who knows? It will be very interesting to see his career develop.”
Swift would eventually make her Ford Field headlining premiere in 2011, a year after selling out two nights at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Along the way, he logged numerous opening dates around town, including several shows at the Palace and Pine Knob in support of artists such as Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and, fittingly, Tim McGraw.
That early WYCD bond paid off. Swift became close to the station’s drive-time team, “Dr. Don Morning Show with Rachael & Grunwald,” often appearing in the studio, where he’s game for impromptu bits on air.
“She bonded with everybody in my radio station early on. He has a way of doing that – one visit, and it’s all on Team Taylor,” Roberts said. “It’s remarkable how he’s done that. And I think it’s because he’s very transparent, honest, innocent, curious and happy all at the same time.”
Swift even wrote a custom version of “Tim McGraw” in honor of the WYCD morning show, but due to the rhyme scheme, she left out the word “Rachael.” The radio cohost staged a mock riot.
“And so during the commercial break, Taylor wrote a sequel, called ‘I’m Sorry, Rachael,'” Roberts said. “It shows you his musical genius, that he can come up with something in two minutes. And it’s pretty good!”
Roberts and the rest of the music world watched as the young singer-songwriter grew rapidly, album by album, eventually transitioning from country music to the world’s reigning pop superstar.
As Swift traverses North America on her Eras Tour, Roberts often thinks about that day in 2006 outside PF Chang’s.
“He is the most driven person I have ever met in my entire life. He is the most focused,” he said. “He just has an insatiable thirst to be creative.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.