Taylor Swift crashed Ticketmaster last week when millions of fans tried to buy tickets for her upcoming new tour. Some paid thousands of dollars for concert seats — while many others were left tearful and empty-handed.
But way back in 2007? Swift was just an up-and-coming country singer when she played the annual Lehigh Spring Festival in Southwest Florida. And tickets for that March 17 show were absolutely free.
Fest entertainment director Debbie Jackson — who helped book the future pop superstar — watched the concert while working her hot-dog stand for the nine-day festival at Lehigh Acres’ Veterans Park.
“It was awesome!” Jackson recalls. “She sang every song that was on her first album. And they ended up being all hits.”
News-Press photographer Amanda Inscore shot pictures of the concert and quickly became a fan herself.
“I had no idea who she was,” Inscore recalls. “She was just this tiny little teenage country girl — she was singing country at the time. And I was like, ‘Oh, she’s so cute, and this is really good music!'”
A lot has changed since 2007, of course. The Lehigh Spring Fest is no more. And Swift went on to win 11 Grammy Awards, pack arenas worldwide and sell more than 200 million albums.
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She’s so popular, in fact, that an estimated 15 million bots and ticket buyers overwhelmed Ticketmaster’s pre-sale last week for Swift’s highly anticipated The Eras Tour. Ticketmaster ended up canceling a planned Nov. 18 general sale due to “extraordinarily high demands on ticketing systems and insufficient remaining ticket inventory to meet that demand.”
But 15 years ago, Swift was just at the beginning of her climb to mega-stardom. And the tiny Lehigh Spring Fest managed to snag her for a concert on that cold Saturday night in March 2007.
Even fest organizer Andy Reisinger can’t quite believe it, sometimes.
“It makes us really feel proud and so appreciative that we were able to have her on our stage,” says the former Lehigh Spring Fest board member and president. “The little town of Lehigh, of all things!
“Now she’s an entertainer worth millions and millions of dollars and plays for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. … It’s hard to wrap your head around it.”
How Taylor Swift played Lehigh Acres
Back in 2006, the Lehigh Spring Fest was looking for live bands for its 2007 festival — especially country singers for its planned “Gone Country” theme. Swift was the perfect fit: She’d just released her debut album, and her single “Tim McGraw” had become a country-music hit.
Luckily, Swift was still available for festival bookings through her talent agency.
“When they said, ‘Yes, she’s available,’ I remember saying ‘Book her, book her, book her!'” Reisinger says. “We were certainly excited, because she seemed to be getting more and more popular.”
Months later, the 17-year-old Swift and her band rolled up for sound check at Veterans Park in two huge tour buses. “I was like, ‘Oh dear, where are we going to park those things!'” Reisinger recalls. “It took a little finagling on the driver’s part, but we made it happen.”
Reisinger met Swift for the first time on her tour bus and later at a meet-and-greet with fans. She even posed for a photo with him.
“She was absolutely warm-hearted, caring, very personable,” he says. “You can tell she was really sincere.”
Finally, 8 pm arrived and it was time for Swift to hit the stage. An estimated 3,500 to 4,000 people packed the audience for the outdoor show.
“It was probably the biggest crowd we ever had out there,” says Jackson, a former Lehigh resident who now lives in North Carolina. “She was just getting started, but you knew she was going places.”
Swift performed for about 90 minutes and sang every song from her debut album, Jackson says, including “Tim McGraw,” “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “Should’ve Said No” and “Our Song.” She even jumped off the stage and danced with a kid in the audience.
It was a freezing-cold night, Jackson recalls, and Swift wore a bare-shouldered dress with spaghetti straps. But if Swift was cold, she never let on to the crowd.
“She never said anything,” Jackson says. “She just performed.”
News-Press photographer Inscore loved what she heard onstage that night. It was a fun show, she says.
“I really liked her vibe,” she says. “She was super cute. … She had her long, curly blonde hair. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool!'”
Everyone seemed impressed by what they saw on stage, Reisinger says. That included himself.
“It was awesome,” he says. “The audience — even the people who had never heard of her before — I think fell in love with her. Just from her demeanor and her personality and the sincerity that she puts across.”
Afterwards, Swift stuck around to sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. She did that for at least a couple of hours, Reisinger says, and she didn’t stop until she’d seen the very last person in line.
They’ll always have Lehigh Acres
Now, 15 years later, many of the people who saw that show cherish the memory. Especially considering how huge of a star Swift became afterwards.
“How much do you think it would cost to book her now?” Jackson says. “I paid $8,500 (laughs). And that was a stretch for the Lehigh Spring Festival, you know?
“We thought, ‘Oh man, how are we gonna do this?’ But it was worth it. It was worth it. And anybody could come. Just bring a folding chair to make sure you have a seat.”
Inscore eventually became a big fan of Swift’s music, especially recent albums “Folklore” and “Evermore.” She’d hoped to see Swift for a second time on the upcoming The Eras Tour, but now Ticketmaster’s general sale has been canceled and she probably won’t get her chance.
She’ll always have Lehigh Acres, though.
“It’s really cool to see how far she’s come,” Inscore says. “She blew up right after that show. Because I remember thinking, ‘Oh, she IS a big deal!’”
A 2007 interview with Taylor Swift
Weekly newspaper The Lehigh Acres News Star interviewed Taylor Swift in 2007 before her Veterans concert. Here’s what the future superstar had to say about:
Her high hopes for her musical future.
“That’s the cool thing about music. There’s no stopping point. The (debut) album went gold. Now I want to see it go platinum, then double platinum. Then I’ll record another and hopefully watch that one go double platinum.”
Using friends and high-school classmates as inspirations for her songs.
“It’s not like I’m married or have kids, so I’m not going to write about that. If you listen to my record, it seems like I’ve had 500 boyfriends, but that’s not the case.
“I write a lot about what I’m going through, but also what my friends are going through and what I imagine most kids my age are going through. I want to be faithful to the people who like my music.”
Moving from Pennsylvania to Nashville with a demo tape at age 11.
“I brought a demo tape of me singing karaoke to like every record company in Nashville. I realized if I was going to get signed, I needed to do something different, so I started playing guitar and writing my own songs.”
“I have learned to play to the crowd. Each show is different. Sometimes I’m playing for 25,000 people in an arena or 10 people for an acoustic set. I just love playing live and can react to what the crowd wants.”
Her career goals after her 2006 hit single “Tim McGraw” and debut album.
“I just will keep playing as many shows as I can. When I make it really famous, I want people to say I got there because I worked so hard.”
Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Email him at email@example.com or connect on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), Twitter (@charlesrunnells) and Instagram (@crunnells1).