Tracy Chapman, Luke Combs and the complicated response to ‘Fast Car’

Tracy Chapman, Luke Combs and the complicated response to ‘Fast Car’

Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is one of those songs that you just feel in your soul: the lyrics about the yearning to escape, the gentle guitar underlying a feeling of despair but also the hope that something better is coming. It can make you cry but also inspire you to belt out the lyrics at the top of your lungs. (“I-eee-I had a feeling that I belonged. I-eee-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone …”)

Singers know that virtually any audience will hear the opening notes and go crazy, so it has become a go-to cover song since its 1988 release on Chapman’s self-titled debut folk album. But in the past few months, one particular cover has struck a chord that no one saw coming.

In March, country music star Luke Combs, 33, released a new album, “Gettin’ Old,” that included “Fast Car,” a longtime favorite that he covered during live shows for years. But when the track hit streaming services, it took on a life of its own, racking up enormous numbers and going viral on TikTok. Country radio stations started playing it, and the song was suddenly outpacing Combs’s actual single, “Love You Anyway.” Combs and his team were stunned by the response, and his label eventually started promoting “Fast Car” to country radio as well. Last week, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart; it was at No. 3 on the all-genre Hot 100 chart, after peaking at No. 2.

To quite a few people, this is cause for yet another celebration in Combs’s whirlwind journey as the genre’s reigning megastar with 16 consecutive No. 1 hits. But it has also prompted a wave of complicated feelings among some listeners and in the Nashville music community. Although many are thrilled to see “Fast Car” back in the spotlight and a new generation discovering Chapman’s work, it’s clouded by the fact that, as a Black queer woman, Chapman, 59, would have almost zero chance of that achievement herself in country music.

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. Watson’s previous work shows that songs by women of color and LGBTQ+ artists were largely excluded from radio playlists for most of the two decades prior.

“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,” said Holly G, founder of the Black Opry, an organization for Black country music singers and fans. “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, who started the Black Opry more than two years ago, withholds her last name in interviews because she has received so many threats for highlighting racism in the majority-White country music industry, which has sidelined artists of color since the early 20th century, when songs from Black singers were filtered out of the genre and labeled “race records.”

There has been a concerted effort from some in Nashville to promote inclusivity, particularly since the industry-wide reckoning after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. But despite some individual success stories, the systemic lack of diversity has persisted. Now that Chapman’s classic is on pace to become one of the biggest songs of Combs’s career, there are uneasy and complex emotional responses.

“I’ve talked to a lot of Black artists about it. …We don’t know how to feel,” Holly said, noting that “it did make things a little bit easier” when Chapman, who hasn’t given an interview in years, sent a brief statement to Billboard last week: “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.’” (A representative for Chapman declined further comment for this story; Combs’s publicist said he was unavailable for an interview.)

“We can continue to celebrate it,” Holly said, “but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having these conversations.”

These mixed feelings were echoed on social media last month when Combs’s “Fast Car” made headlines after it jumped to No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, surpassing Chapman’s own peak of No. 6 in August 1988. Even taking into account the differences in chart metrics over time, some people had the typical visceral reaction that occurs when anyone covers an iconic song: It will never be as great as the original. But whether they liked the cover or not, others hoped this situation would lead to more awareness about the larger issues in country music and Black art in general.

Jake Blount, an Afrofuturist folk artist who has devoted his career to studying music history and reinterpreting older songs, tweeted about the concern of Chapman’s “legacy being overwritten in real-time.” He thought about how Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” was consumed by Elvis Presley or how Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks” was overshadowed by Led Zeppelin, along with endless other examples of the “White male genius” archetype that often receives credit for songs by Black artists.

“When I wrote those tweets, people [replied] to me and said, ‘Oh, there’s no way anybody’s going to forget Tracy Chapman, she’s too big already.’ … And I hope that’s true, but I know how it’s played out before,” Blount said. “We know Black visionaries who have created incredible, powerful, influential works … that have been forgotten and erased. It’s not malice from the White artists making derivative music based on theirs, but it’s how society works.”

A similar pattern has existed in country music for years, said Tanner Davenport, a Nashville native and co-director of the Black Opry: White country singers struck gold this past decade releasing songs heavily influenced by R&B and hip-hop, but few Black artists are even signed to major Nashville labels. He pointed to breakout star Jelly Roll, a White former rapper who has been happily embraced as a newcomer on country radio, earning a No. 1 hit with another near the Top 5. Meanwhile, history has shown that up-and-coming Black singers such as Willie Jones and Rvshvd will have a much more difficult path forward, considering how few Black artists are on country radio.

The immediate success of Combs’s “Fast Car,” Davenport said, “kind of just proves that when you put a White face on Black art, it seems to be consumed a lot easier.” That’s why some goals of the Black Opry are to make sure artists of color can have equal opportunities and get the same amount of attention, he said, and to push for change among gatekeepers in Nashville. “This genre needs to expand their boardrooms and let marginalized people be in these rooms and make a bigger bet on these artists.”

One reason “Fast Car” hit a nerve is that it’s special to everyone for different reasons. In interviews, Combs has talked about how it was one of the first songs he learned to play on guitar, and how it reminds him of spending time with his dad when he was young. But the song has always had a particular significance in the Black and LGBTQ+ communities, Davenport said; the Black Opry performed a group singalong of “Fast Car” when it closed out its first show. (Chapman does not discuss her personal life, but writer Alice Walker has disclosed their relationship, which occurred in the 1990s.)

“I think the song in general is pretty reflective for a lot of people who do identify as queer, and also for a person of color — the song almost seems like an anthem for us,” Davenport said. “It’s been pretty monumental in our lives, and I think it made us feel like we weren’t alone.”

Francesca Royster, author of “Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions” and an English professor at DePaul University, said the song’s story of the narrator feeling trapped and trying to escape is “a really American iconography” about cars holding the promise of freedom. “This is something country music is very invested in, too: the American dream of reinvention and finding happiness after a life of struggle,” Royster said.

That might be one reason the song hits with the country audience, Royster said. Though, as someone who lived in Oakland, Calif., when “Fast Car” came out and saw how it connected to the queer community, she said, it’s difficult to see the success of Combs’s cover knowing that country music, with its historic emphasis on “tradition,” has generally shied away from highlighting LGBTQ+ artists and their stories — which is all part of the complexity of the current life of the song.

Through it all, one thing is certain: Chapman has now made history. Rolling Stone reported that Chapman, who wrote “Fast Car” by herself, is now the only Black woman to ever have a solo writing credit on a No. 1 country song.

“I love the fact that Tracy Chapman is the first Black woman to have that superlative,” said singer-songwriter Rissi Palmer, who hosts Apple Music radio show “Color Me Country,” about the Black, Indigenous and Latino roots of country music, adding that it remains “crazy” that only a few Black women have had No. 1 country songs: “I definitely don’t think that speaks to talent.”

Palmer, who was drawn to Chapman’s “soulful, almost mournful” sound when she first heard the album as a child, recently did a deep dive into Chapman’s catalogue for an upcoming “Color Me Country” episode and recalled how the singer “spoke truth to power,” spotlighting issues such as domestic violence and poverty. “I really think that Tracy should be a bigger household name than she is,” Palmer said.

In addition to being pleased by the royalties Chapman is earning from the “Fast Car” cover (Billboard estimated that, because she owns the publishing, she is due a “sizable portion” of Combs’s approximately $500,000 in earnings so far), fans are gratified by the renewed attention on the singer. Aurélie Moulin of France, who has run the definitive Tracy Chapman fan site since 2001 and has social media accounts with more than 2 million combined followers, confirms that discussion of Chapman has “exploded” online — and that the last time a “Fast Car” cover was so hotly debated was when Justin Bieber performed his version in 2016.

As Combs’s cover stays glued near the peak of the Billboard Hot 100, there’s the hope in Nashville and beyond that this can add to the discourse of the urgency of change in country music. Holly of the Black Opry said that now would be a great time for Combs to invite a queer Black female artist to join him on tour or to offer his support: “You used her art to enrich your career, and that opens you up to a little bit of responsibility giving back to the community.”

“I think the big lesson here is Black women belonged in country music all along,” Holly said. “If that song can chart as No. 1 today in country, it should have charted in [1988]. … The only thing different is a White man is singing the song. I hope that’s a lesson that people take away from it: Our art is good enough and deserves to be recognized on the same scale.”

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