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Tracy Chapman on Luke Combs' Cover of 'Fast Car'

By Dustin Rowles | Celebrity | July 7, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | Celebrity | July 7, 2023 |


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Longtime readers know that my childhood was something akin to a bad country song, only I would replace the whiskey with meth. I spent most of my high school years in Arkansas planning my escape, realizing only during my senior year — thanks to the advice of some caring adults — that higher education was both the easiest and most effective path out of poverty.

This living situation wasn’t often reflected in the movies, television, or even in the music I listened to as a teenager. Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, and R.E.M. may have allowed me to exorcise some of my angst, but their songs never quite resembled my experience. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” however, did; it did so with such accuracy that sometimes I resented the song because it seemed to portend, for me, a trap within the cycle. The song is about a woman eager to escape the poverty of her mom and dad, only to end up in a dysfunctional relationship not unlike that of her parents.

I also grew up in what was essentially a segregated town, where the Black people lived in one neighborhood on the outskirts, regardless of their financial situation — nice houses were built next to ramshackle ones. A teacher, a preacher, or a factory worker could live in a modest home in the same neighborhood as a cardboard house. The street I grew up on eventually connected the city to the Black neighborhood. This meant that most of the houses looked the same driving down my street, with the only difference being that the families on one side of it were Black, and the families on the other side were white. “Fast Car” connected me to the other end of my street. It made me realize, in ways that I might not have otherwise known at that age, how similar my dreams of escaping were to the teenagers living on the other end of the street. Years later, when I ended up living in Davis Square outside of Boston — where Tracy Chapman was discovered by the writer of Billions and Rounders, of all people — I felt another strange, symmetrical connection with Chapman. We both made it out, and we both ended up in the same neighborhood.

Thus, I had mixed feelings a few weeks ago when I first heard country singer Luke Combs’ version of “Fast Car” on the car radio on the way to the grocery store. I couldn’t leave the parking lot until I had finished listening to it. I had a lot of feelings. There was a part of me that believed Combs was appropriating the experience of a Black woman, but there was another part of me that thought “Fast Car” is one of the most quintessential country songs I’d ever heard. I was surprised that it took 35 years for someone to remake it as a country song. It’s perfect.

See, my old man’s got a problem He lives with the bottle, that’s the way it is He says his body’s too old for working His body’s too young to look like his My mama went off and left him She wanted more from life than he could give I said somebody’s got to take care of him So I quit school and that’s what I did

I don’t know too much about Luke Combs, but I like to think that he feels as connected to Tracy Chapman’s song as I did growing up. I’m also pleased that Tracy Chapman herself — who has largely disappeared from public life — is happy that her song has found another audience. “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there,” she said to Billboard magazine after learning that she’s the first Black woman ever to top the country charts as a sole songwriter. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”

I, too, am happy, although I’m bummed that 35 years later, the song continues to resonate with listeners as much as it does. It shouldn’t have to. This is probably the most Dad-like thing I have ever written in my life, but there is a way out. Unfortunately, it’s not a fast car, which only allows you to outrun your problems for so long. The easiest way to break the cycle is through education, though I am aware that — even in my situation — I had privileges others who aren’t white kids do not that made gaining that education more attainable.