At 13, Taylor Swift, who began writing songs at age 5, signs with RCA Records. A year later, she gets out of the contract because she doesn't want to sing other writer's songs. Around that time, she becomes the youngest songwriter to sign a publishing deal with Sony – but doesn't want her songs sung by other artists. "She has a real inner vision, a real inner directedness," says Scott Borchetta, who eventually urges Swift to write and sing under a recording contract with his indie label, Big Machine Records.
Swift's breakout single, "Tim McGraw," which she began writing in her freshman math class, hits country radio airwaves. The song is about hoping her love thinks of her when he hears Tim McGraw's music. It peaks at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. While performing her hit at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2007, Swift finally meets McGraw when she walks into the audience to serenade McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill (right).
Big Machine Records releases the 16-year-old's self-titled debut album. "I didn't come in to this to be baby-sat," Swift tells the AP about having creative control. She also says she isn't afraid of the tough country music industry: "Not by any measure. I'm intimidated by the fear of being average." Her debut eventually sells more than 2.5 million copies.
At the Country Music Association Awards, 17-year-old Swift performs her latest hit, "Our Song," before winning the coveted Horizon Award. "I can’t even believe that this is real," she says during her acceptance speech. "I want to thank God and my family for moving to Nashville so I could do this. The fans – you have changed my life. This is definitely the highlight of my senior year!" Past winners include Garth Brooks, The Dixie Chicks and Carrie Underwood.
Called upon to help announce the Grammy nominations, Swift is ecstatic when she hears her own name in the category of Best New Artist. An ecstatic Swift rushes over to fellow announcers, Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl (left) and Taylor Hawkins, and hugs them. "Don't worry, Taylor," Grohl says, "you got it in the bag." At the ceremony, another talented singer-songwriter, the troubled Amy Winehouse, nabs the trophy.
To ring in her milestone 18th birthday, Swift's parents, Andrea and Scott, throw her a pink party in Nashville. The birthday girl parties with some 200 guests, including Kellie Pickler. "This party is our birthday gift to her," her mother tells PEOPLE. "She knows the real gifts in life are relationships." But the best part about turning 18? "I wanted a No. 1 record, and I got that," Swift says of her chart-topper "Our Song." "And I got something I didn't even ask for: a Grammy nomination. It's been a great year."
Swift appears on the cover of Blender, where she discusses her love life – or lack thereof. "I just don't have the time," Swift says of dating, revealing that she hasn't kissed a boy in almost two years. When asked about her dream prom date, she says, "Perez Hilton! Your prom date is supposed to be fun and hilarious, and I think I'd have more fun with Perez than with anyone else." The country music darling also lands on PEOPLE's Most Beautiful list.
At the fan-driven Country Music Television Awards, Swift – barefoot for most of the show – nabs two major prizes, including Video of the Year. "Are you sure? Are you serious?" Swift says in disbelief as she accepts her first award for Female Video of the Year. Of her lack of footwear, she later tells PEOPLE, "I walked by Faith Hill and I was like, 'This hurts so bad.' And she was like, 'Take them off,' Faith Hill told me to. So I did it."
"Mom, thank you so much. I love you. This is for you!" Swift tells the crowd as she tearfully accepts the award for Top New Female Vocalist at the 2008 Academy of Country Music Awards. She also gives a dripping wet performance of "Should've Said No," during which water pours on her from the ceiling.
Although Swift says Joe Jonas, 19, is just a friend, the Jonas Brothers cutie fuels rumors when he turns up at her concert. Through her rep, Swift says of Jonas, "He's an amazing guy and anybody would be lucky to be dating him." While Jonas recently said, "She’s a great girl...I think anybody would love to go on a date with her." In October, they call it quits, and Swift writes a track, "Forever and Always," inspired by their breakup.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Courtesy Taylor Swift; Frank Micelotta/Getty; amazon.com; Mark Humphrey/AP; Jordan Strauss/WireImage; Eric Fancher; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic; Ethan Miller/Getty; Chris Polk/FilmMagic