“Fast Car” and the poverty ties that bind us

The first time I heard a white man cover Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, it wasn’t Luke Combs. It was last summer at a shopping center upscale enough to have a concert green and covered stage. My reaction was involuntary: “that man has absolutely no business singing that song.”  

Turned out the performance at the mall wasn’t a one time, 35-year-old song revival—it was a cover of a cover. A popular one, so whenever I caught the first distinct notes, I jabbed my car radio to another station. This version of the song wasn’t for me.  

Forgetting that Chapman’s original wasn’t exactly for me either.  

Why the irrational anger? Probably the appropriation of Black culture and a white man’s voice gaining attention over the Black woman who created the song. For starters. 

Who owns the song? 

I forgot about the whole thing, until the Grammys. I skipped the broadcast, but news of their performance afterward was inescapable. Something like, Luke Combs performed Fast Car and invited Tracy Chapman to perform with him.  

There was no mistaking who owned that song on that stage.

Then, on our Racial Equity Media channel at Community Solutions, our CEO shared a NYT op-ed from Lydia Polgren, who wrote, “when I first heard Luke Combs’s faithful-to-a-fault rendition of Tracy Chapman’s masterpiece Fast Car, it left me cold.” Exactly, yes! 

But Polgren, a woman of color, was not deeply upset about the appropriation. She was more bothered that Comb’s version of the song added nothing new—it was too faithful to Chapman’s vision. 

She went on to describe Combs on the Grammy stage with Chapman: nearly trembling, standing so close to the artist he idolized, whose music inspired him to become a songwriter. “There was no mistaking who owned that song on that stage.” 

This was the part that finally sent me looking for the Grammy performance. My tears surprised me, though not in reaction to Chapman’s distinct heart-rending voice. Not even remembering the 12-year-old girl who heard Fast Car in 1988, discovering through art a world of poverty and a horizon of no-good-choices. But that same year my dad died, taking our financial stability with him. Chapman’s ode to escape suddenly made a lot more sense.  

What began for me as artistic admiration and curiosity transformed into a miserable personal realization: this is what it feels like to be trapped by circumstance. But that still wasn’t why I was crying. 

Who’s the song for? 

My overwhelming emotions came from this: while deeply familiar with Chapman’s voice, I had never actually heard Luke Combs sing. His voice rang with a longing akin to Chapman’s. I could almost feel a philosophical pivot.   

Polgren wrote, “There is nothing in the modern American songbook that matches Fast Car as a song about working people and the yearning for a life with dignity and freedom. It’s a song about mobility, about longing to make the seemingly impossible journey from ‘work in a market as a checkout girl’ to “finally see what it means to be living.’”  

Maybe that’s why his cover remained so faithful: there was nothing to improve upon. 

The song captures more than class, though. British singer-songwriter Paloma Faith said that Fast Carinspired a sense of freedom in me and liberation to choose who I am and where I go and reminds me I can leave whenever I want.That sounds like the agency women have to battle for every day. 

My colleague Julie Patterson pondered what the insistent freedom of the song might mean to the LGBTQ community. “Fast Car is considered a lesbian anthem. What does that mean when the song comes back in this way?” 

The same song, on repeat 

It is surely no coincidence that Combs’s version of Chapman’s song took off in a year when so many people were struggling financially, reports the BBC. In 2023, the US had seen the largest one-year poverty rate increase in history, with 12.4% Americans now living in poverty. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 26.5% of Black Ohioans and 10.5% of white Ohioans were in poverty in 2022. 

Chapman and Combs trading verses made it strikingly obvious, the connections between poor Black urban Americans and poor white rural Americans. It’s a regularly (and conveniently) ignored link, but among the data nerds and policy wonks at Community Solutions, it’s an almost boring truth.  

While racial diversity is largely dependent on where you live, the reality of lack in the inner city is similar to the lack in the one traffic light town. Did Comb’s fans, perhaps hearing Fast Car first from a country artist realize that their new favorite song belonged first to a Black woman? And did Chapman fans release the clutched indignation (I’m the problem, it’s me.) to enjoy a truly lovely and historic exchange? 

By insisting that the singer at the mall, and my naive teenage self, had no right to Fast Car, I missed the point entirely. Because of the song’s revival, Chapman is now the only Black woman to ever have a solo writing credit on a No. 1 country song and the first Black songwriter to win song of the year at the 2023 Country Music Awards. Something she is proud and pleased about. 

It’s Black History. What business do I have gatekeeping?  

Think of how many times you’ve hoped or even schemed for art, policy, or influence to reach “the people that need to hear it.” If only they could understand what we understand. Comb’s version of Fast Car was nearly identical to Chapman’s original, and for good reason. Two different faces of poverty and hope—and the fans they represent—are trading verses in exactly the same song.