Joe Elliott was sitting in Def Leppard’s dressing room when someone walked in and placed a laptop in front of him, telling him to watch the video clip on it. It was 2008, and the Sheffield band were touring in support of their recently released album Songs From The Sparkle Lounge. The video on the laptop featured an interview with a rising young country-pop singer who had been garnering headlines recently.
“It’s Taylor Swift,” Elliott told Rolling Stone in 2018. “She’s doing this interview and she said there was only one band that she would ever do a Crossroads with and it was Def Leppard.”
Crossroads was a hugely popular American TV show airing on the CMT network that paired country music stars with artists from other genres. The musicians would jam together, playing each other’s songs as faithfully or differently as they saw fit.
And Taylor Swift? She was one of the most talked-about new singers in the US. Her self-titled 2006 debut album had topped the Country Charts and reached No.5 in the main Billboard charts. The album didn’t betray an affinity for the kind of stadium-sized hard rock that Def Leppard were best known for purveying, but her mother, Andrea, had been a huge Leppard fan in the 80s, and the young Taylor had grown up in a house where Hysteria was on heavy rotation.
“Taylor Swift’s [2014 album] 1989 is called 1989 because that was the year she was born,” Elliott told The Irish Times. “Throughout 1988 she heard our music in her mother’s womb, non-stop. Her parents are big Def Leppard fans.”
Leppard were keen to take her up on her offer. “We’ve always been that poke-noses-out-of-joint kind of band,” Elliott told Rolling Stone. “I loved the idea of something that’s gonna either piss people off or they go, good for you for doing something different. If you’re gonna do collaborations, I don’t see the point in us doing a song with Bon Jovi.”
And so Def Leppard’s team reached out to Taylor Swift’s camp – something presumably made easier by the fact that Leppard drummer Rick Allen’s brother Robert was her tour manager at the time. A couple of months later, they were in rehearsals together in preparation for recording the Crossroads show. Given that Swift was in her late teens, some minor lyrical tweaks were necessary, not least on Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me.
“Me and Taylor sat down, and she says, ‘I can’t sing that line,’ cos it was a bit too risqué’,” Elliott told Rolling Stone. “So we’d swap things around. And the fact that I was actually singing from the male point of view in some of her stuff, like in [Swift’s] Love Story.”
The Crossroads performance was recorded over two shows at the Acuff Theater in Nashville in early October 2008. The finished episode, which broadcast on CMT on November 8, three days before the release of Swift’s second album, Fearless, saw Leppard and Swift collaborating on 11 songs, with the American singer’s own band providing extra backing, including acoustic guitar and fiddle.
The show opened with Swift duetting with Elliott on a version of Leppard’s 1983 single Photograph, the teenager adding some swagger to the song’s opening lines. The rest of the set was an even split between the two artists’ songs with Swift’s Picture To Burn, Love Story, Teardrops On My Guitar, Should’ve Said No and Our Song and Leppard’s Hysteria, When Love And Hate Collide (apparently Swift’s favourite Def Leppard track), a raucous Pour Some Sugar On Me, Love and Two Steps Behind getting the collaborative treatment.
The show was an immediate hit, notching 4.5 million viewers in its initial airings. Swift’s career was already rocketing upwards at the time but it certainly didn’t hurt for her music to be exposed to modern rock audiences. For Def Leppard, it placed them in front of an audience who might not have listened to them since their 80s heyday – if at all. Speaking to Classic Rock in 2019, Leppard guitarist Phil Collen acknowledged the bonus, stating, “The Taylor Swift thing probably did expand our audience. It was great mixing those genres of music.”
Ultimately, the Crossroads performance showcased the strengths of both artists – as well as some unlikely similarities. It proved so successful that Leppard and Swift re-teamed the next year to close the 2009 CMT Music Awards with Pour Some Sugar On Me.
“People were looking at us like we had three heads when we announced we were going to do this TV show with Taylor Swift,” Elliott told Classic Rock in 2023. “The point is to get two extremely opposite artists performing on it… We just saw it as an opportunity to do something different. And it was phenomenal fun.”