Before anything else is discussed, you have to appreciate just what a monster track the Luke Combs version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” has become. The numbers are nothing short of incredible.
As a radio single, “Fast Car” is the fastest-rising single of Luke’s already top flight career, taking only 7 weeks to climb to #4 on MediaBase—the fastest-rising country single since Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” 15 years ago. It will be at #1 on country radio shortly, and will likely remain there for many weeks.
Initially, “Fast Car” wasn’t even originally released to country radio as a single at all and was never intended to be one. Officially, Luke’s current radio single is “Love You Anyway” that sits at #11 at the moment. In an unprecedented move, Luke Combs allowed his fans to choose “Love You Anyway” as his next radio single as opposed to his label. But “Fast Car” wasn’t presented to them as an option in the poll.
“Fast Car” was officially released to country radio during the last week in May after it started showing such incredible traction. It had already reached #12 on country radio under it’s own volition. It was listeners who decided that “Fast Car” was something remarkable, and started streaming it in such demonstrative numbers that it shot up the charts. The song is averaging 1.2 million streams a day on Spotify alone, and it only took 83 days to reach 100 million streams after being released on Luke’s album Gettin’ Old issued on March 24th.
The song was also sent to Top 40/Hot AC radio in mid April as a single, but this was only after streams of the song exploded after the release of Gettin’ Old. The song accrued around 65 million Spotify streams in the first few weeks after the release.
“Fast Car” has since become Luke’s biggest crossover hit, and one of the biggest songs in all of music right now. It sits at #3 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100. That’s higher than Tracy Chapman’s original version ever got, which peaked at #6 in 1988. It’s also the first time in 23 years that two country songs are in the Top 3 of the Billboard Hot 100 when combined with Morgan Wallen’s hit “Last Night” sitting at #1. All of these numbers come from chart expert Chris Owen.
“Fast Car” by Luke Combs will be one of the signature hits of his career, one of the signature songs of 2023, and a “song of the summer,” imprinting it in the brains of listeners as defining of this era in music. It’s that big. This phenomenon feels very similar to what happened with another cover song—“Tennessee Whiskey”—when Chris Stapleton performed it with Justin Timberlake on the 2015 CMA Awards, sending the track into the stratosphere where it remains still to this day as one of the most popular songs currently in country music. But unlike “Tennessee Whiskey,” Luke’s label was smart and released “Fast Car” to radio as well.
How is a country music fan, a Luke Combs fan, a Tracy Chapman fan, and a general fan of music supposed to feel about all of this?
It’s really important to understand that the “Fast Car” phenomenon is almost completely organic, and being driven by the people themselves, not publicists or labels or any sort of corporate conspiracy, which one can be quick to assign to something when it’s happening in country music since big corporate labels control so much of the landscape. But “Fast Car” was never supposed to be a single. We know this because it wasn’t initially serviced to radio.
As a song and as an arrangement, it’s hard to characterize “Fast Car” by Luke Combs as “country.” It’s mostly acoustic and completely organic, which means it’s not offensive to the country audience. But Combs did not attempt to “country it up” so to speak by adding banjo or singing it with an especially twangy voice. There is some ambient steel guitar, but Combs was mostly respectful of the original approach. He didn’t really try to “make it his own” as is often said about cover songs. “Fast Car” is an American folk song, and that is the treatment Luke Combs gives it.
Of course, some have claimed this song is appropriation by Luke Combs, and it’s sacrilege to have a white male country superstar sing it since it was a song written by a Black woman from a decidedly Black woman’s perspective. But this is why it’s important to point back to the organic nature of the track’s rise. This was just supposed to be an album cut—an homage to the original that Luke Combs recorded because he wanted to. It’s the public that has put “Fast Car” on the trajectory it currently enjoys.
And as the composer, Tracy Chapman is making an extremely significant amount of money off of this phenomenon as well. Luke Combs is introducing “Fast Car” to an entire generation of listeners who’ve probably never heard the song before, and that are connecting with the melody and the message. Is it a little disingenuous to hear the song sung from a male perspective? Of course it is. But that doesn’t mean the underlying message can’t land. Clearly it does, and it is. That is the reason the song has become so successful.
At the same time, “Fast Car” remains Tracy Chapman’s song. This situation isn’t comparative to Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” (originally recorded by David Allan Coe and George Jones) or the Darius Rucker version of “Wagon Wheel” (originally recorded by Old Crow Medicine Show) where large swaths of the public will regard it as an original from the performing artist. Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car” are inexorably linked, and nothing Luke Combs could ever do would injure that. He can only help spread awareness of the original song, which incidentally is also receiving a boost in streams due to the Luke Combs version.
What is “Fast Car?” It is a distinctly American story about the struggle so many individuals go through to seize the American dream. That is what made it resonate so deeply in 1988, and it’s the reason it is resonating so deeply now when you have so many people struggling, especially younger people with the way housing insecurity has created an entire population of working homeless living out of their cars, or failing to achieve upward mobility.
How are we supposed to feel about the song in regards to genre? How does this make use feel about country music’s reigning CMA Artist of the Year? When you have a phenomenon this deep and resonant, it should be regarded irrespective of genre. We’re all music fans first, and then our tastes fall down genre lines. Folk and country have a long lineage together. “Fast Car” is a great song. This isn’t “Achy Breaky Heart” or “Body Like a Backroad.” There are much worse tracks that could and have gone viral.
Nonetheless, “Fast Car” is one of those songs that’s also destined to become so ubiquitous it receives backlash simply from being omnipresent in popular culture. It’s hard to control that. But there are much worse songs for this to happen to.
Tracy Chapman wrote a song for the ages when she wrote “Fast Car.” Luke Combs is just giving us a reminder of it, and at a time when many people need this song. Too often in music, distinguishing audiences criticize something simply due to its popular nature, political opportunists try to draw weak parallels between hot button issues, or genre purists fail to see the bigger picture. With “Fast Car,” it feels like a phenomenon that speaks to the continuing power of music and its ability to connect to people, and to connect people to each other. And that feels like something that would be foolish to attempt to get in the way of.