Some moments, and some songs are bigger than genre, or even era. They resonate with the audience irrespective of age, race, creed, gender, or anything else. They’re universal, regardless of the story or the style behind them. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” has clearly proven to be one of those songs.
It was a major single when it was released in 1988. “Fast Car” went on to hit #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was later nominated for three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Performance; the last of which it won. Tracy Chapman also performed the song as the closing number for the 1989 Grammy Awards.
As you’re probably aware, “Fast Car” has received second life via country music’s Luke Combs over the last year or so after it was released as an album cut on Luke’s record Gettin’ Old. Though it was never supposed to be anything more than a fun cover song, it quickly went viral, and completely organically. As a whole other single was being pushed to country radio (“Love You Anyway”), Luke’s label had to do an audible and make “Fast Car” a priority. It became one of the biggest songs in all of music in 2023.
Tracy Chapman has virtually retired from touring or even making public appearances these days, and rarely even makes statements through representatives. Chapman hasn’t released new music since 2008. She did appear on Late Night with Seth Myers in 2020 in a remote-style pandemic-era performance, encouraging people to vote with her song “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”
When the Luke Combs version of “Fast Car” first became a smash, Chapman did released a rare statement to Billboard, saying, “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”
When the Grammy nominations for 2024 were revealed, “Fast Car” came away with a nomination for Best Country Solo Performance. On Sunday, February 4th, Tracy Chapman has agreed to appear with Luke Combs to perform “Fast Car” on the 2024 Grammy Awards. It’s hard to state just how significant this is, and potentially how big of a moment it will be for “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman, Luke Combs, and music in general.
Even before the 2024 Grammy Awards, the Luke Combs version of “Fast Car” is a landmark award winner. The song won both the 2023 CMA Single of the Year and Song of the Year in November, making Tracy Chapman the first Black songwriter to win these awards. When “Fast Car” hit #1 on country radio, it also made Chapman the first Black woman songwriter to have a country radio #1.
Billboard estimates that Tracy Chapman made around $500,000 in publishing royalties off of the Luke Combs version of the song just in the first few months. By now, it’s likely to be well north of $1 million. Luke’s version also goosed interest and streams in Tracy Chapman’s version of the song.
When “Fast Car” won the CMA for Song of the Year—a songwriters award that goes to the songwriter specifically—Luke Combs did the right thing, and didn’t go up to accept the award at the podium, either as the performer, or on Chapman’s behalf. Instead, a statement was read from Chapman saying, “I’m sorry I couldn’t join you all tonight. It’s truly an honor for my song to be newly recognized after 35 years of its debut. Thank you to the CMAs and a special thanks to Luke and all of the fans of ‘Fast Car.'”
When Luke Combs won for Single of the Year—a performance award—he made sure to say, “First and foremost, I wanna thank Tracy Chapman for writing one of the best songs of all time. I just recorded it because I love the song so much. It’s just meant so much to me in my entire life.”
“Fast Car” is not like other major cover songs in country music’s recent past where members of the general public might be confused about the origination point of the song. When Morgan Wallen covered Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” or Darius Rucker covered Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” there were certainly prevailing misconceptions about who the original artist was due to the original songs not being as ubiquitous as the cover versions.
With “Fast Car,” this is not a concern. Everyone knows it’s Tracy Chapman’s song, and Combs (along with country music) have done everything correctly to make sure that any misconception does not take root. Besides, it would be difficult to impossible for that to happen. Older listeners immediately recognize the song and tell younger listeners who the original artist was. The cross-generational aspect and appeal of “Fast Car” is one of the reasons the resurgence of the song is so cool.
Despite all of this, there is an extremely small, but very loud and connected minority of activists, journalists, and academics that have decided to characterize the Luke Combs cover of “Fast Car” as problematic. Along with scores of social media posts, Emily Yahr of The Washington Post, as well as The Atlantic and other outlets published stories citing concern with the song’s success.
Since Tracy Chapman herself is on board with the cover version, and country music has been making all the correct moves to make sure all credit goes to Tracy, the argument has basically broken down to how it took a white guy in Luke Combs to take a song from a Black woman to the top of the country charts.
As Holly G, the founder of the Black Opry says, “On one hand, Luke Combs is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see that someone in country music is influenced by a Black queer woman — that’s really exciting. But at the same time, it’s hard to really lean into that excitement knowing that Tracy Chapman would not be celebrated in the industry without that kind of middleman being a White man.”
Holly G is right in the respect that a Black woman has never had a #1 song in country that she performed herself. But as we saw with the 2023 CMA Awards, a Black woman was celebrated when the Country Music Association voters bestowed Chapman with two CMA Awards, and Song of the Year that solely went to her. Would this have happened without Luke Combs? Of course not. But “Fast Car” is a 35-year-old folk pop song re-recorded for the country format that would have never received this opportunity in country anyway.
For years we’ve heard that if women and Black/Brown performers are ever going to make it in country music, it is going to take White males stepping up to help bring these marginalized performers forward. Though this wasn’t necessary the original motivation for Luke Combs and his version “Fast Car,” that was the ultimate result.
Luke Combs did better with “Fast Car” in country than Tracy Chapman did with “Fast Car” in folk and pop, which are considered much more inviting formats for Black women. Where Chapman’s version released to folk and pop reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988, the Luke Combs version went to #2 on the same chart. Ironically, Luke’s version was kept out of the #1 spot by Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” after controversy rocketed Aldean’s single to #1.
Zach Bryan was able to offer similar help in 2023. Bryan was able to get Kacey Musgraves to #1 with “I Remember Everything”—something the entire country music industry was unable to do for Musgraves her entire career previously. Bryan also got Black country duo The War & Treaty to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and independent Appalachia artist (and SCM Artist of the year) Sierra Ferrell to #37.
These were all landmark, career-topping achievements for these performers, and an example of how a White male can use his position of power and popularity to prop up deserving performers. It also underscores how independent, non radio artists are now flipping the script in the country music industry. One performer was able to blow past the rest of the industry’s gatekeeping.
Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” has been a landmark achievement for Black women in country music, even before Sunday night’s performance on the 2024 Grammy Awards (and likely Grammy win). Diminishing the meaning and impact of it from the fear of giving ground to an industry that still has strides to make runs the risk of regressing from the moment as opposed to moving forward from it.
The power to chose winners and losers is no longer solely with the country music industry, and it most certain doesn’t reside at radio. That’s why the continued citing of radio statistics as a way to canvas the identity of country music contributors or the success of music is entirely outmoded.
The Washington Post article on “Fast Car” states, “The numbers are bleak: A recent study by data journalist Jan Diehm and musicologist Jada Watson reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of songs played on country radio in 2022 were by women of color and LGBTQ+ artists.”
But solely focusing on radio has an erasing effect on the much more omnivorous and diverse population of independent country and Americana artists that make up the true population of country performers. To act like if they’re not on the radio, they don’t matter is a gross reduction.
Saving Country Music witnessed crowds of over 20,000 watch Black artists like Charley Crockett and Yola perform in rural Oregon last summer at FareWell Fest alone, for example. The population and commercial aspect of independent, non radio artists in country music is exploding.
It was Tik-Tok that blew up the Luke Combs version of “Fast Car”—not radio, not a major label, nor the country music industry. It was the people who found appeal in the song, and chose to share it organically in a more democratized version of promotion. Of course, we’re seeing this same social media phenomenon throughout music at the moment, completely divergent from terrestrial radio.
Instead of waiting for the insular and corrupt wheels of the country music radio to start grinding in one’s direction and offer more diversity, the activists, journalists, and performers should start leveraging the power of social media, playlists, and podcasts to go direct to consumers. Country radio will only become equal and diverse when it’s no longer relevant in the marketplace whatsoever, just like CMT did when it instituted its “equal play” policy a few years ago.
In truth, there is no controversy with “Fast Car.” There is a X/Twitter thread of the same people that comment on the same stories written by the same journalists over and over about race issues and country music that never query for outside perspectives that could help offer some important context. But when these stories end up in places like The Washington Post, it has an outsized impact.
As The Atlantic asked in their article on the matter, “What is the most constructive way for the press to cover race if its objectives include accurately informing citizens about the past and the present––no matter how awful or uncomfortable––and refraining from framing the news in ways that are needlessly polarizing or essentialist?“
What Tracy Chapman’s appearance with Luke Combs at the Grammy Awards unequivocally signals is that she is clearly is okay with all of this. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be agreeing to any of it. Knowing Tracy Chapman, if she saw the Luke Combs version of “Fast Car” as problematic in any capacity, she would be actively speaking out about it.
If we can’t celebrate a Black woman winning CMA Awards and receiving Grammy nominations in country, what can we celebrate? Tracy Chapman was recently named as one of the members of the 2024 class to be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. That likely doesn’t happen without the “Fast Car” resurgence via Luke Combs. This moment has introduced Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car” to an entirely new generation.
Does country music still have work to do when it comes to race and gender? Of course it does. That goes without saying. But let’s not diminish accomplishments because we’re worried it may send the wrong message.
“Fast Car” ultimately is a song about the disillusionment with the American dream. The war vs. the left and right, the rural and the urban, and White and Black is no longer as significant as the one pitting the top vs. the bottom. Whether it’s a Black gay woman from the city, or a poor rural straight white man from the country, the message resonates equally. That is the lesson of “Fast Car” and Luke Combs’ success with it, illustrating how music is one of the last remaining vessels to unite people across demographic lines—a characteristic that should be preserved and cherished.