(July 9, 2023).  This past week, Tracy Chapman became the first Black woman to solely pen a No. 1 country song when Luke Combs’ cover of her 1988 hit “Fast Car” topped Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, a ranking of the songs played the most on country radio stations across the U.S. 

The song also concurrently ranks at No. 2 behind Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” on both the Hot 100 (an all-inclusive song popularity ranking, formerly known as the pop chart) and the Hot Country Songs chart, both of which use the same methodology measuring sales, streaming and radio airplay across all formats.

That indirectly made Chapman part of history by her contributing to country music’s first one-two punch atop the Hot 100 in 42 years (since Dolly Parton and Eddie Rabbitt held court on the list with “9 to 5” and “I Love A Rainy Night,” respectively, in March 1981).

Tracy Chapman’s original “Fast Car” peaked at No. 6 in 1988 and brought folk music back to the top 10 for the first time since the 1970s

But Chapman’s place in history with “Fast Car” and the original album that contained it—her self-titled debut in 1988–go well beyond what she’s accomplished in 2023 with Combs’ faithful remake (which this blogger loves by the way).

Besides “Fast Car” being the first remake of an ‘80s tune to hit the top ten in eons, the Tracy Chapman album containing the original was only the second folk album by a female solo artist—and the first by a Black woman—to top the Billboard 200 in that chart’s history.

When it reached No. 1 on the chart dated August 27, 1988, Tracy Chapman became the first folk album by any act to top the list in nearly 25 years—since The Singing Nun’s self-titled album in early 1964. That album had been propelled by the Belgian nun’s No. 1 French-language single “Dominique.”

The Singing Nun, a/k/a Sceur Sourire (Smiling Sister), a/k/a Jeannine Deckers, topped both the album and singles charts in 1963-64.

Prior to The Singing Nun (aka the late Jeannine Deckers), the folk music trio Peter Paul & Mary reached No. 1 in 1963 with two of their albums—a self-titled LP and In The Wind.  

The legendary folk group Kingston Trio had five No. 1 albums on the main Billboard chart beginning in 1958 (before it was expanded to 150 positions and became a combined stereo and mono chart in August 1963). (Note: the chart was eventually expanded to first 175 and then 200 positions by May 1967.)

Comedian Allen Sherman recorded a No. 1 album called My Son, The Folk Singer in late 1962, but that was more a novelty than it was folk music, despite its title. (It is fun to listen to, which I did while researching this article.)

Either way, The Singing Nun and Tracy Chapman were the only two solo females to top what is now the Billboard 200 with a folk album from 1955-88 (and for 32 more years after that, which I’ll get to in a moment).

Even more astoundingly, in the years between the crownings of The Singing Nun in 1964 and Tracy Chapman in ‘88, no purely folk albums—regardless of gender—topped the list, although some came very close. 

In 1974, Joni Mitchell reached No. 2 (her highest position) with Court and Spark, which contained the iconic “Help Me” and this blogger’s personal fave “Free Man in Paris.”

Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark was the highest-charting folk album of the 1970s (No. 2 peak in 1974).

Harry Chapin reached his personal best No. 4 with the 1974 album Verities & Balderdash, which contained the No. 1 pop smash “Cats In The Cradle.”

Judy Collins got as high as No. 5 with 1967’s Wildflowers, which contained her classic top-10 pop chart hit “Both Sides Now.”

The Limeliters, a folk group, also climbed to No. 5 in 1961 with their Tonight: In Person live album.

Joan Baez topped out at No. 7 with a live album—Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2–in 1964.

And, although he had many top-10 folk-oriented albums during the 1960s, by the time the legendary Bob Dylan had his first No. 1 set in 1974 with Planet Waves, he had moved on from the folk influence of his earlier years to a more roots rock-leaning sound.

Considering how legendary those names are in folk music, the significance of Tracy Chapman—who wasn’t even born when the prior pure folk album topped the chart—becoming the first folk artist to get a No. 1 LP in a quarter-century cannot be overstated.

Now there is a caveat to the above statistic.

If you include the folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, who had three No. 1 albums beginning in 1968, including the iconic Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970, then that takes away Chapman’s distinction of having been the only folk artist to top the chart between 1964-88.  But she’d still be the first female to do it in that span. 

The 35 years since Chapman’s reign have been just as dire for female folk artists at the top of the Billboard 200.

While several male acts have flirted with folk or one of its many sub-genres and taken those albums to No. 1, only one female has done it since 1988–and that’s Taylor Swift, whose two folk-influenced pop albums Folklore and Evermore both topped the chart in 2020.

Meanwhile, albums by indie folk band The Lumineers, British folk band Mumford & Sons, alternative folk band The Civil Wars, indie folk-rock band the Decemberists, folk singer-songwriter Amos Lee, and folk-popster Jack Johnson have all topped the chart, with several of those male acts having two or three No. 1s apiece. 

Even Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, which topped the album chart in March 2012, and John Mayer’s Born and Raised, which did the same in June that year, both dabbled into a little folk-rock.

And with a surprising return to his folk roots, Bob Dylan again topped the album chart in 2009 with his 33rd studio set, Together Through Life.

If you throw in the 2002 soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that’ll make at least a dozen folk-oriented albums that have topped the Billboard 200 since Chapman did it in 1988, with only Taylor Swift’s two experimental, multi-genre albums making the case for women in the folk department. 

Which brings us right back to Tracy Chapman’s remarkable standing as the lone female with folk as her primary style of music to have topped the Billboard 200 in the past nearly 60 years.

And with claims of more than 20 million copies sold worldwide since its 1988 release, Tracy Chapman is the biggest-selling folk album by a female (and second-biggest of any folk record after S&G’s Bridge Over Troubled Water).

I’d say that’s pretty remarkable, right up there with the aforementioned recent milestones courtesy of Luke Combs’ “Fast Car” remake.


DJRob (he/him/his), who is thoroughly impressed with Luke Combs remake of “Fast Car,” is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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By DJ Rob

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