(February 13, 2024).  The sweet story that has been “Fast Car” for the past eleven months has culminated this week in a special moment on the Billboard singles chart. 

After country superstar Luke Combs appeared with the legendary Tracy Chapman at the Grammys on February 4 to perform a duet of the song that Chapman wrote and recorded in 1988 and Combs remade 35 years later into one of the biggest country crossover songs of the 21st century, both solo versions of their common hit now appear simultaneously on the Hot 100.

Combs’ “Fast Car” rebounds from No. 20 to No. 8 after gaining in streams, sales and airplay following last week’s Grammy performance — in its 46th week on the chart — while Chapman’s original, which reached No. 6 in 1988, re-enters the Hot 100 (after also gaining in all three chart metrics) at No. 42, its first time on the list since its initial run ended after 21 weeks in October ‘88.

Excluding Christmas fare, which regularly returns to the chart each November/ December (thanks to streaming and modern chart rules), and which occasionally includes multiple versions of the same song by different artists populating the rankings, “Fast Car” may be the only time in modern history that an original non-holiday song and a remake recorded by a different musician more than three decades later have been co-listed on Billboard’s main singles chart.

To underscore just how long it’s been since Chapman’s “Fast Car” was last motoring on the charts, the last time it revved its engine as high as No. 42, the No. 1 song in the country was Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” (from the movie Cocktail).

It was a happier time to be sure, in October 1988 when Americans didn’t seem so politically and socially divided and when a simple song — derided as it was for its naivety and unabashed poppiness — could channel the optimism of a nation, real or imagined, in less than four minutes.

But the optimism found in “Don’t Worry Be Happy” (and further illuminated in fellow Cocktail single “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys, which was also in that week’s top 40 and would later climb to No. 1), was in sharp contrast to the depressing themes fueling “Fast Car,” namely that of a woman locked in a frustrating relationship and living in a system of poverty, with the metaphorical song title representing her family’s only hopes for a way out.  

That week, “Fast Car” was in its last top-40 frame at No. 39.  It would spend three more weeks on the Hot 100 before completely abandoning the chart after the October 22, 1988 Billboard issue.

Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs sing “Fast Car” at the Grammys (Feb. 4)

Luke Combs didn’t enter the world until fifteen months later — on March 2, 1990 — and would begin forging his successful country music career in the mid 2010s, by which time Chapman, who’d scored two multi-platinum, two platinum and two gold-certified albums between 1988 and 2008, had been dormant for nearly a decade.

Combs would cover “Fast Car” for his fourth full-length studio album, last year’s Gettin’ Old, which like Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album containing the original, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s album chart.

It wasn’t the only thing the two singers had in common.  Both Combs and Chapman had been nominated for Best New Artist Grammys (with Chapman winning hers in 1989 in the wake of “Fast Car”).  Combs lost in 2019 to dance-pop singer Dua Lipa.

Combs’ take on “Fast Car,” which he acknowledged on Grammy night was his first favorite song as a child, earned him accolades in 2023, including ranking as his biggest hit yet on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 2 peak) and his 17th No. 1 Country Airplay hit (including one as a featured artist) since 2016, more than any other artist in that timeframe.

It also won him a CMA Award for Single of the Year for 2023, his first win in that category.

But it was the Grammy duet that finally brought the two artists’ individual roads together: an intersection of age, gender, race and sexuality that ran deeper than the song’s own poignant lyrics about universal problems that transcend all our differences.

That Chapman and Combs were on stage together singing the song they both brought to entirely different audiences 35 years apart — and independently made career statements with — was just part of what pulled us in.  One could see Combs’ genuine joy as he silently mouthed the lyrics to Tracy’s parts, while alternately singing his own as if she’d written his favorite song with him in mind.

Chapman, of course, has also benefited from Combs’ resurrection of her breakthrough hit.  She became the first Black female to solely write a No. 1 country song.  It also earned her a CMA last year for Song of the Year, a songwriter’s award (35 years after being nominated for the same song in the similarly titled Grammy category).

But it was the 2024 Grammy performance that had America reawakening to Chapman’s 36-year genius.  Her voice was in pure form, her once-idle “Fast Car” getting yet another tune-up and a refueling courtesy of the more contemporary Combs, the willing protégé who brought it to life.

It’s sad that we’re relegated to celebrating moments like this, where the unlikely pairing of a Black queer female — a legendary songwriter in her own right — with a straight white country male superstar on music’s biggest night makes us all weird and sentimental (and has this writer cyphening as many corny car references as one can in an article like this).

But that’s the reality of 2020s America, where we’re more defined by our differences than our similarities.

That’s why “Fast Car” perhaps means so much more now than it ever has before — either when Chapman first did it or when Combs covered it — and the songs’ joint appearances on this week’s Hot 100 (along with America’s continued fascination) represent our shared desire to escape the current times.

In that way, despite their tale of desperation and helplessness, maybe the two “Fast Car” versions actually offer far more hope today than either “Don’t Worry Be Happy” or “Kokomo” ever did in 1988.

Either way, congratulations to both Chapman and Combs on continuing to make history with a song we didn’t know we loved so much.


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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