Posted on July 19, 2023

Tracy Chapman, Luke Combs and the Complicated Response to ‘Fast Car’

Emily Yahr, Washington Post, July 13, 2023

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 {snip}

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. {snip}


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.”


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.”


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.”