Tracy Chapman has full credit for writing her first hit single, Fast Car, and Tracy, her band, and her production team take credit for the finished song. Nonetheless, Nelson Mandela and Stevie Wonder deserve some credit for popularising the song. Fast Car was released as a single by Elektra on 6 April 1988 (one day after Chapman’s debut album, Tracy Chapman).
In June 1988, Chapman was set to play three songs at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Concert at Wembley Stadium, London. The Concert was broadcast to 600M people in 67 countries. Stevie Wonder was scheduled to follow Chapman, but was delayed. To fill the gap, Chapman sang Fast Car & Across the Lines. Fast Cars & its parent album shot up the charts. 35 years later, Luke Combs revived the song.
Combs’ respectful, nuanced transposition of Fast Car from a folk-soul classic into a country-tinged hit has topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart, making Tracy Chapman the first Black woman with a sole songwriting credit on a #1 country hit. CNN reports that, as a result, Chapman also made #1 on Billboard’s Country Songwriters chart. Combs’ cover is also the first “pop” cover to summit the country charts in fifteen years (since Blake Sheldon covered Michael Bublé’s Home).
Perhaps even more remarkably, Combs’ cover of Tracy Chapman’s heart-rending story of a young woman’s dream of escaping a desolate, desperate situation has made #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Chapman’s original release only made 6. Luke Combs has yet to release an official video of his new cover of Fast Car, which is why I linked a lyric video earlier. Nonetheless, there is a 2021 video of Combs doing a solo acoustic version, which I’ll link later. First, here is Chapman at the Mandela Concert:
How young, how beautiful, how vulnerable, and how commanding Tracy Chapman looked and sounded. A mesmerising performance, made all the more special by the fact that she had been rushed back on stage as a stopgap when Stevie Wonder’s electric keyboard was missing its floppy disc.
In a press release, Combs states that Fast Car is “my first favourite song probably ever. I remember listening to that song with my dad in his truck when I was probably four years old. He had a cassette, a tape of it, and we had this old brown camper top F-150. We rode around that thing, and he had a tape cassette player in there, and I have the original cassette.”
Tracy Chapman has commented that she never expected to be on the country charts, but she’s honoured to be there. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced Fast Car,” she said.
As promised, here is Luke Combs’ solo version of Fast Car, posted on 29 April 2021.
If you’re anything like me, you’re itching to hear the beautifully arranged original Tracy Chapman single. Here it is: