In August 2014, Taylor Swift could not have been more direct — she was moving on from country music, the genre that made her famous.
“This is my very first documented, official pop album,” Swift said during a live-stream event where she announced “1989,” her upcoming fifth studio album. “In my opinion, we made the most sonically cohesive album I’ve ever made.”
This was not an easy thing for some in the country music world to accept, given that she was one of the format’s most successful singers. Swift told Rolling Stone at the time that her record label president begged her to include a few country tracks on the album. She declined to do so.
While Swift has transformed into a pop megastar in the years since, she hasn’t completely left the genre behind. She has written a couple songs for other acts (Little Big Town’s “Better Man,” Sugarland’s “Babe”) and performed last year at the Academy of Country Music Awards. But on Friday, she paid homage to her country roots in the most significant way yet with “Fearless (Taylor’s Version),” a rerecording of the 2008 album that won album of the year at the Grammy Awards, the top prize at both major country award shows, and launched her into superstardom with smash hits such as “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story.”
Incidentally, the reason for the rerelease stems from an incident with her former Nashville label, Big Machine. Two years ago, music manager Scooter Braun purchased Big Machine Label Group in a reported $300 million deal, meaning he became the new owner of Swift’s master recordings from her first six albums. Afterward, Swift penned a scathing letter saying that her masters being sold to Braun was her “worst case scenario”; she said he had “bullied” her for years and also alleged she wasn’t offered the chance to outright buy the masters herself. Swift promised she would rerecord all of her older albums so she would fully own them, therefore devaluing Braun’s purchase.
“Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” is her first step in that quest. While all the songs sound very similar to the past version, save for her more mature vocals and a few new production elements, she took extra steps to maintain it was still a very Nashville record.
First, she enlisted two of the genre’s current biggest stars to join her on songs from “the vault,” a collection of six tracks that Swift wrote years ago and wasn’t able to include on the original “Fearless.” Maren Morris, who once joined Swift as a guest performer on tour, is featured as a background singer on “You All Over Me.”
“One thing I’ve been loving about these ‘From The Vault’ songs is that they’ve never been heard, so I can experiment, play, and even include some of my favorite artists,” Swift wrote on Instagram in March. “I’m really excited to have @marenmorris singing background vocals on this song!!”
Keith Urban also shows up on two “vault” tracks: He plays electric guitar and performs background vocals on “We Were Happy,” and duets with Swift on “That’s When.”
“I’m really honored that @keithurban is a part of this project,” Swift wrote in another Instagram post. “I was his opening act during the Fearless album era and his music has inspired me endlessly.”
In addition to featuring artists, Swift has no doubt made some Nashville songwriters very happy as she revives their older tunes: Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, two of the genre’s most reliable hit writers, collaborated with Swift on the title track. Big & Rich’s John Rich co-wrote “The Way I Loved You.” And the “vault” songs include tracks co-written by Scooter Carusoe, Tommy Lee James and Brad and Brett Warren.
Rose has more songwriting credits on “You Belong With Me,” “Tell Me Why” and the Grammy-winning “White Horse,” as well as vault tracks “We Were Happy” and “Bye Bye Baby.” In an interview with The Washington Post in 2016, Rose recalled initially receiving judgment from her colleagues when she wrote with a teenage Swift.
“I mean, I was catching flak: ‘What are you doing writing with a 14-year-old?’” Rose said. “I was like, ‘Hey, this kid’s brilliant, and it’s the easiest, funnest thing I do all week. And too bad y’all are not a part of it.’”
Swift proved quite a few skeptics wrong as she went on to not only sell millions of albums, but change country music forever as she proved that young listeners were a powerful fan base for the format. And now, as she dives back into her past work, it’s another reminder of what she brought to the genre — and what it lost when she moved on.