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  • How Cleveland’s Tracy Chapman became country music’s first time-traveling Black superstar

How Cleveland’s Tracy Chapman became country music’s first time-traveling Black superstar

Author: Malcolm X Abram,

This article was originally posted on on December 30, 2023.

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Tracy Chapman hasn’t released an album of new songs since “Our Bright Future” 15 years ago and hasn’t toured since 2009.

Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter and native Clevelander has been one of the bright musical stars of 2023. Her music climbed back up to the top of several Billboard charts this year, and Chapman became the first Black woman in country music history to hit No. 1 on country radio as a solo songwriter. She also became the first Black woman to win a Country Music Association award, taking home the Song of the Year prize at this year’s ceremony.

And she did it all without her having to lift a single guitar-plucking finger.

Chapman’s 1988 debut single and hit song, “Fast Car,” from her debut album, was revived in 2023.

Back in the ‘80s, “Fast Car” earned Chapman Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammys and and helped her sell many millions of records.

This year, country singer-songwriter and star Luke Combs recorded a no-frills, lyrically true cover of the tune, which he recalled hearing in his father’s brown, two-by-four 1988 F-150 with a tan camper top as a kid.

Combs had been playing “Fast Car” live long before he started headlining arenas and outdoor amphitheaters He is now one of country’s biggest stars with 16 country chart-topping singles, including “The Kind of Love We Make,” “Forever After All,” and “She Got The Best of Me.”

Combs’ camp initially cleared his recording of “Fast Car” with Chapman as required. Combs’ cover shot to No. 1 on the country charts, giving Chapman the unique and very 2020s distinction of being the first Black woman to have an original song to take the top slot.

But then the cover began to cross over to the pop charts, and Combs’ camp reached out to Chapman again to ensure she was okay with Combs’ team fully promoting his version to pop radio.

“Whatever way she decided to go, we were going to go. We’re just not that camp, and Luke’s not that artist,” Comb’s co-manager Chris Kappy told Variety.

“It’s her song. That’s the right thing to do, and we got to her, and it was blessed for us to do more with it,” he said.

Chapman’s graciousness turned into a commercial and financial boon for both artists.

Combs’ version of “Fast Car” crossed over to top the BIllboard Hot 100 pop chart, reaching further than Chapman’s original single, which peaked at number 6 in the U.S., though it made the top 5 in several countries throughout the Western pop music-consuming world.

Chapman, who very, very rarely speaks or appears publicly, released a statement to Billboard: “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”

Combs’ success with her song also bumped Chapman’s streaming numbers. According to tracker Luminate in the three weeks before the March release of Combs album “Gettin’ Old,” Chapman’s full artist catalog averaged 3.5 million on-demand audio streams per week. In the following three weeks it rose to an average of 4.1 million for an 18.4 percent jump. By mid July, Chapman’s catalog had experienced a 51 percent increase in on-demand audio streaming.

The cover song would win Single of the Year at the 2023 Country Music Awards, where Combs reiterated his love of the tune.

“First and foremost, I want to thank Tracy Chapman for writing one of the best songs of all time,” he said at the ceremony, drawing cheers from the audience.

“Never intended for that,” he continued. “I just recorded it because I love this song so much. It’s meant so much to me throughout my entire life. It’s the first favorite song that I ever had from the time I was four years old.”

Chapman reciprocated in a statement read at the ceremony. “I’m sorry I couldn’t join you all tonight,” she wrote.

“It’s truly an honor for my song to be newly recognized after 35 years of its debut. Thank you to the CMAs and a special thanks to Luke and all of the fans of ‘Fast Car.’”

Though “Fast Car” is Chapman’s best-known song, it isn’t her only charting single and wasn’t even her biggest hit.

Her debut album, which topped the Billboard 200, also had the pleading “Baby, Can I Hold You” and “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution.” Both that latter song and the album cut, “Across The Lines,” were inspired by the racism she and her sister Aneta experienced growing up in Cleveland.

Tracy and Aneta lived with her mother, Hazel, in a Black working-class neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side. Hazel Chapman worked a series of jobs to support her children but found time to expose them to Cleveland’s cultural offerings. Tracy started playing the ukulele when she was 3 and enrolled in guitar and clarinet lessons at the Cleveland Music School Settlement when she was 7.

Chapman left Cleveland at 14 on a scholarship to attend the exclusive Wooster Preparatory School in Danbury, Conn. She had been attending Albert Bushnell Hart Junior High School.

Chapman has said in interviews that got into a verbal and physical altercation with a young white boy in junior high school. She said the boy pulled a gun on her while she walking through a predominantly white neighborhood on her way home from school to her predominantly Black neighborhood.

“As I recall, they were just starting to implement desegregation,” Chapman told The Plain Dealer in 1992. “And there was a lot of controversy, as well as teachers’ strikes going on. It seemed to me, and my mother eventually agreed, that it would be better for my education if I was able to go somewhere where there wasn’t so much controversy.”

Chapman’s fourth album, “Matters of the Heart,” released in 1995, contained the bluesy “Gimme One Reason,” which peaked in the top 3 on several Billboard charts and hit No. 1 on the Adult Top 40. The song also earned Chapman another Grammy for Best Rock Song.

As many things do these days, the statistical novelty and surprise of a “Fast Car” resurgence inspired a newsfeed-filling rash of stories and think pieces about the phenomenon. Though often referred to as a “controversy” because controversy is assumed to equal page views, many of those pieces were more thoughtful discussions of longstanding music industry topics, including why it (yet again) required a white male face and voice to elevate Black artistry.

But arguably, Combs’ faithful version (he doesn’t even change the “So I work in a market as a checkout girl” line) just reminded many listeners of the song’s universal appeal and it’s catchiness.

Some critics wondered whether Combs’ success with the song would “erase’' Chapman in the way the original version of “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton for whom the song was overtaken by Elvis Presley’s hit version. Similarly, “When The Levee Breaks” became a signature song for Led Zeppelin (who also added their names to the credits) while its originators, Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, are seldom mentioned.

Also, “Fast Car,” with its themes of escaping oppressive surroundings and restarting somewhere new, has long been a queer anthem, giving its rise in the not traditionally LGBTQ+-friendly country music world a bit of irony.

But the original versions of “Hound Dog” and “When the Levee Breaks” were released in the days of “Race Records,” and the lyrics and arrangement for Presley’s “Hound Dog” hew closer to the goofy 1955 version by Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys (remember them?) than Thornton’s original. That was in an era of a purposely segregated American music world, where young white kids would play the “acceptable” and sterilized Pat Boone covers of rock and roll songs by Chuck Berry and Little Richard when their parents were home. Then, when alone, they’d shake and shimmy on the 1 and the 3 to the exciting, visceral originals.

“Fast Car” has a long, storied global chart history, multiple covers from other stars, including Justin Beiber, Jonas Blues featuring Dakota, Sam Smith, Jamilla Woods, Black Pumas and Khalid. Plus, the sheer amount of internet analysts think-piecing all over its resurgence should keep Chapman’s name rightfully at the heart of any future discussion about the song.

Perhaps the best outcome of the phenomena would be for the song’s renewal to inspire Chapman, who hasn’t released an album since 2008′s “Our Bright Future” and hasn’t toured in more than 14 years to want to share some of her artistry to a more musically eclectic mainstream pop world.

There are millions of fans of all genres all over the world who would welcome and champion her return.

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