I think that it’s fair to say that “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman is an absolute classic. Her first star- making hit will probably go down as her most famous song. It’s hard for me to think of many songs more beloved and acclaimed than “Fast Car.” Because of this, we have a lot of covers. Just about everyone who can sing and/or play the guitar has played “Fast Car”. One of these covers, by Luke Combs, has been sitting comfortably in the top 40 for months now. I completely understand why, but I also can’t quite get behind this new cover.
For the uninitiated, Luke Combs is part of a newer crop of country music artists that are trying to bring a bit more respect to the genre. For a while now, country music had trouble finding an identity in modern pop. The best attempts have probably been “bro country,” which has been pretty squarely written off by the majority of listeners. While artists like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan have had major success, critics have panned their music as sellout pop sludge, not “real country.” This is where artists like Combs come in. These artists are trying to push country music back to its roots. This push has been very successful, and overall I believe that country music has been having a pretty major comeback.
One of the best examples of this comeback has been the success of this “Fast Car” cover. At a glance, it’s a very earnest and faithful cover of Chapman’s hit. Combs doesn’t really change the tone or vocal inflections. He doesn’t swap any of the lyrics, gendered or otherwise. If you want to hear a very good vocalist cover a great folk song, then you’ll probably have a pleasant time with this cover. However, as this cover climbs higher and gains more and more popularity, I’m left with quite a few questions. What does this Luke Combs cover add? Why does it keep gaining acclaim? Why is this cover charting higher than the original? This cover exists in a rather awkward space. At face value, it’s just a cover. But when you look at the culture and climate it exists in, you start to wonder if all of its success comes from its musical merit.
Country music already has a pretty terrible reputation when it comes to how they treat black artists. Is this cover a celebration of a great song written by a black woman, or are country music fans only interested because there’s a white voice singing? I really don’t think that Combs or Chapman intended for this conversation to be attached to “Fast Car” but, unfortunately, music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I doubt that Combs’ cover will have more longevity, but it has officially charted higher. These types of questions are going to be asked.
Tracy Chapman’s music feels incredibly authentic and personal, that’s what makes her such a great folk singer. When she wrote “Fast Car” she was a young, struggling artist. While “Fast Car” isn’t autobiographical, Chapman still makes it all feel incredibly real. In the song, the narrator talks about future plans. These plans can seem sort of mundane; buying a house in the suburbs, finishing school, it all seems very achievable. However, part of the power of “Fast Car” is that you aren’t sure if the narrator will get these things. It’s not a forgone conclusion that someone like Tracy Chapman will get these things, or hit these milestones. This goes for the romance of the song as well. In “Fast Car,” Chapman tells a rather heartbreaking story of young love being struck by reality. Chapman and her partner stay together and “make it,” but the life they have is full of regret. Look at the last full verse of her song:
You got a fast car
I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I’d always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me would find it
I got no plans, I ain’t going nowhere
Take your fast car and keep on driving
Even though she got what she wanted, it still didn’t make her happy. By the time the chorus hits for the final time, my heart is in my stomach. It feels like I’m the one who threw my life and my love at someone that doesn’t deserve it. I feel heartbroken. Luke Combs doesn’t make me feel any of that.
When Luke Combs covers “Fast Car,” he recontextualizes the story. Suddenly the song is no longer about a struggling black woman, it’s a song about Luke Combs. He sings with this laid back energy that just doesn’t do the song justice. Tracy Chapman sings “buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs” like that’s a dream, something that she hopes and wishes for. Luke Combs sings that line like it’s something that’s going to happen. Combs recorded this cover as a country superstar and multimillionaire. He can’t put the power, or the pain, that Chapman was able to inject the original with. Even though Combs sounds nice, and the song is still great, the combination of the two does not work for me. Chapman’s “Fast Car” is about life, love, and loss. Comb’s version could very well just be about a car.