Luke Combs’ “Fast Car” is just one more way to celebrate Tracy Chapman

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Luke Combs has won “Single of the Year” at the Country Music Awards for “Fast Car”; and Tracy Chapman has won “Song of the Year,” the first time for an African American in the organization’s 57-year history. Some folks argue that Luke Combs, reaching the top of the country charts and winning this award is exploitative because she wouldn’t have made it onto the country charts in 1988.

I’ve loved Tracy Chapman’s music for a long time. I was present that “fateful night” on May 3, 1985, at The Strand Theater in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, when, as producer Polly Laurelchild recounts, she opened for Casselberry-Dupree, opening act for headliner, Linda Tillery. Chapman, an undergrad who had done some singing around Harvard Square, blew the audience away. The bashful 21-year-old stepped from the wings with her acoustic guitar, stood in the corner of the stage, in front of the curtain, sang two songs, and earned a spontaneous standing O.

In 1988, not long after Chapman graduated from Tufts University, she burst onto the national music scene having made connections to a major record label through a college friend. The world would hear the power of her music through her self-titled, debut album. Later that same year, Chapman performed “Fast Car” for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration at London’s Wembley Stadium and went on to win three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. Many of us in the over-lapping progressive circles of the Greater Boston/Cambridge Women’s, LGBTQ, academic and folk music communities, were, and are, proud of her success.

To those who argue that Luke Combs’ version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” winning “Single of the Year” is, somehow, an affront to African American music makers and Black women in particular, I say that the context of history is important when we talk about appropriation and discrimination in the recording industry. People, this is 2023, not 1893.

We’re not talking about Antonín Dvorák, the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York and composer of “The New World Symphony,” being influenced by the African American Spirituals that he asked Harry T. Burleigh to sing for him.

This is 2023, not 1928.

We’re not talking about Lesley “Esley” Riddle, the young musician who accompanied A.P. Carter around Virginia and Tennessee to gather songs from rural homes and churches, and, who played a key, largely unsung, role in the development of The Carter Family and the genre we now call Country Music.

This is 2023, not the 1950’s & 60’s.

We’re not talking about Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s original version of “Hound Dog” being eclipsed by Elvis Presley; we’re not talking about the fact that Big Mama didn’t own the copyright to “Ball and Chain.” We’re not talking about Pat Boone watering down Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” to make the song acceptable for a “mainstream” audience and simultaneously charting higher.

People, it’s 2023 and we’re talking about Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs.

Tracy Chapman is an educated, millionaire, businesswoman who doesn’t authorize samples. (Just ask Nikki Minaj who settled a lawsuit suit for $450, 000 for a leaked “interpolation” of “Baby Can I Hold You.”)

Reportedly, she is estimated to have received close to a half-million dollars, to date, in royalties from Luke Combs’ rendition of “Fast Car.” Of course, we still have miles to go, but thanks to the ongoing courage, creativity and persistence of many, 2023 is a new day.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 08: EDITORIAL USE ONLY Luke Combs accepts the Single of the Year award onstage during the 57th Annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena on November 08, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)
Luke Combs accepts the Single of the Year award for Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the 57th Annual CMA Awards on Nov. 8, 2023 in Nashville, Tenn. Chapman received the Song of the Year award for the song, 35 years after she released it. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

Because Luke Combs loved the song as a kid, we are all reminded, or learn for the first time, what a beautiful song “Fast Car” is — a heart-breaking reminder of all young people, in general, young women, in particular, across our country and our world who are not in a position to “live their best (social media) lives,” but who want to find love and “be someone.” We’re reminded of the power of music, the power of art and creative genius.

Are we really going to waste time and energy arguing that the road to success for Tracy Chapman should’ve been different?  No. If we want to see more people of color in country music and hear more of their music on the radio, we need to learn about them and support them.

See what Darius Rucker has been doing since his Hootie and the Blowfish days. Buy a couple of tickets to a Mickey Guyton show. Check out the Mississippi trio, Chapel Hart. Donate to Rissi Palmer’s Color Me Country Artist Grant Fund to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in country music.

In the meantime, I think that Ms. Chapman is doing just fine, thank you.

Kate Rushin, a distinguished visiting poet in residence at Connecticut College, is an award-winning author, including the iconic “The Bridge Poem” featured in the 1981 collection “This Bridge Called My Back.”

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