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Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ is leading the race 35 years later

LUKE COMBS (left). Photo by David Bergman. Tracy Chapman (right). Photo by Hans Hillewaert.

Photo caption: LUKE COMBS (left). Photo by David Bergman. Tracy Chapman (right). Photo by Hans Hillewaert.

There is social media buzz regarding the country music community and country singer Luke Combs’ success with the 1988 Tracy Chapman hit “Fast Car.”

I realize Black Music Month was celebrated in June, but this issue is worth an article—seeing as Black music has often taken a hit when it’s railroaded by white artists.

And this isn’t an assassination of Combs’ version, just an examination of the renewed interest in Chapman’s.

In this case, for Chapman, 59, a queer Black woman, who years ago had an affair with writer Alice Walker—which was detailed in Walker’s 2013 documentary titled “Beauty in Truth”—it’s being mentioned that she would never have had phenomenal success with “Fast Car” back in 1988.

Now Combs, 33, has come along and covered this song; however, the country music community and its base in Nashville have traditionally been aloof when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. However, the controversy stems around diversity within the country music industry, as well.

And that’s why, as some folks say, “I’m hotter than fish grease.”

And while a recent elder of country music, Charley Pride, was African American and made tremendous strides during his decades-long career, there aren’t many Black singers in the genre. He started off in the Negro Leagues playing baseball and performed as a country star beginning in 1970 until his death in December, 2020.

There’s newcomers Mickey Guytin, Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Breland, the duo, The War and Treaty, Yola and Darius Rucker, who was formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish—a pop/rock band.

Combs’ version of “Fast Car” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart; and registered at No. 3 on the all-genre Hot 100 chart, after peaking at No. 2.

Jonas Blue and Justin Bieber are also artists who have recorded the song in the past.

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. But she had won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, as well as Best New Artist in 1989.

Holly G, founder of the Black Opry, an organization for Black country music singers and fans, was quoted in an extensive Washington Post story by the paper’s entertainment reporter Emily Yahr: “I think the big lesson here is Black women belonged in country music all along,” she 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.”

Yahr’s story was titled: “Tracy Chapman, Luke Combs and the complicated response to ‘Fast Car’”

UNC Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom tweeted: “You can tell that @EmilyYahr has hit a good nerve when 1) people willfully misread a tweet to amend it & 2) the replies are full of blue checks. The data in said article shows how statistically unlikely it is that any Black female artist will chart in country & why Chapman has.”

In the early 2000s, women of color and LGBTQ+ artists didn’t even register on country radio playlists. Given this, even now with Nashville attempting diversity, it’s still not noteworthy.

A co-director of the Black Opry, Tanner Davenport, said in Yahr’s piece: “Kind of just proves that when you put a white face on Black art, it seems to be consumed a lot easier.“ He added: “This genre needs to expand their boardrooms and let marginalized people be in these rooms and make a bigger bet on these artists.”

Historically, Chapman’s version peaked at No. 6 after it was released in 1988. And, historically, Black artists such as Little Richard with “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” and Black female Blues singer Big Mama Thornton and “Hound Dog” have been railroaded when their songs landed in white hands—songs which made more money for the white artists.

Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” was redone by Eric Clapton, whose 1974 version was more commercially successful and reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart and was inducted into the Grammy’s Hall of Fame. Conversely, country star Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which became a huge hit for the late Whitney Houston.

Chapman is the sole writer of “Fast Car,” and has said that she is thrilled that the song is seeing a rebirth and she has received the distinction as the first Black woman to top the chart since the Billboard Country Airplay chart was formed in 1990.

“I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there,” Chapman told Billboard. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.'”

Finally, Chapman didn’t get as wide acclaim in 1988 for her song about poverty, hope, a drunk father and the “fast car” that could help her escape it all.

I played that song on an endless loop back in the day—and even now from the first guitar chord you know it’s Chapman. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics:

“You got a fast car

We go cruising, entertain ourselves

You still ain’t got a job

So I work in a market as a checkout girl

I know things will get better

You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted

We’ll move out of the shelter

Buy a bigger house, live in the suburbs..”

I’m pleased to learn that as far as royalties are concerned, at this time, since Chapman owns the publishing rights to her song, she is slated to reap a great portion of the $500,000 that Combs has earned so far.

She’s one smart cookie.

Search for Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” video to see a performance. Afterward, you are more than welcome to search for Combs’ version.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (

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