March 14, 2024

"Fast Car" and Country Music

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

Perhaps the highlight of the 2024 Grammys was Luke Combs’ duet with famously limelight-averse Tracy Chapman, singing Chapman’s “Fast Car.” While I had been pondering this song for over a year, it took the Grammy performance to really get a sense of what was going on here, especially with Beyoncé’s new songs promising to spark new controversy over what “country music” should be.

Combs’ version of the song is likely the one that most college-aged Everyday Sociology Blog readers know, but when most of your older professors (like me) were of a similar age, Chapman’s song was a big deal. These days, most hit songs come and go but, in 1988, the song was in heavy rotation. It was on the radio; it was in the mall.

Of course, there wasn’t streaming in those days, and chart metrics were different back then. But Chapman’s version only hit #6 on Billboard, while Combs’ version climbed to #2. Combs’ album, Getting’ Old came out a year ago. He was already a country superstar, but with Chapman’s song, Combs reached new audiences.

Combs certainly comes across as a nice guy who reveres Chapman, but it was difficult to watch the celebrations and conversations after the surprise performance, as commentators attempted to render their verdicts on just who was profiting off of whom.

To some, perhaps those who grew up like me having listened to Tracy Chapman, this Luke Combs guy was just an upstart. (Having left behind my research in country music in 2014, I missed Combs’ ascent. After his EP that year, he went on to score 16 consecutive #1 hits in country.) One of the most mocked responses was from someone who thought that it was Tracy Chapman who was glomming onto Luke Combs’ fame, when she was likely doing just fine without him.

First, what makes cover songs so interesting? Perhaps it’s from my experience being in bands that makes me a sucker for a good cover. (My high school garage band did a cover of R.E.M.’s Superman, which we knew was a cover but I’d never listened to the original until this blog post. I like covers so much, my wife and I joke about starting a band that only does covers of cover songs.)

Some covers are reverent, nearly note-for-note reconstructions (i.e., Weezer covering Toto’s Africa… a homage so strong their video stars the most famous song interpreters of all time: Weird Al Yankovic). Other covers become known because they are a dramatic departure, nearly indistinguishable from the original (i.e., Limp Bizkit—I can’t believe I’m typing that band name into a sociology blog post—made a name for themselves with their wild reinterpretation of George Michael’s “Faith”).

Returning to Chapman/Combs, the reinterpretation versus reproduction factor plays a part in the interest it has generated. Combs genuflects to Chapman, making his version of “Fast Car” a reproduction. This might appear to be reverence for the original and the artist herself.

Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote in the New York Times:

[The] lack of reinterpretation is why the country-pop audience loves the song enough to make it a massive hit. It asks nothing of them and strips the song of political urgency by maintaining the farce of sameness.

I don’t know if I know enough to disagree with the point of political urgency (i.e., Chapman doesn’t seem to see the song as being political) but I do want to dwell on the idea of Cottom’s “farce of sameness.”

The commentary is not just about whether Combs’ version is “faithful” or not. A significant part of the Chapman/Combs story has been about the race of the two artists. (For those who don’t know, Chapman is Black and Combs is white.) Yes, she comes from more of a singer-songwriter background and, while she’s been private about her personal life, it’s fair to say that she has been embraced by the LGBTQ community. The “farce of sameness,” is the illusion that these are just two artists coming together in a love for a song and songwriting, while there is a lot to be said about white folks appropriating African American music.

The spectacle of the Grammys performance lit up my phone, including a text from a conservative friend begging for it to be a moment of racial harmony. To nip that in the bud, Cottom continued: Chapman’s and Combs’s performance ties too neat a bow on years of conflict within country music over who gets to play with the genre’s big boys.” Cottom has a more detailed response on the BlueSky social media app here.

The “Fast Car” phenomenon was such a story because people were able to see exactly what they wanted to see: Some saw Combs’ deference as racial reconciliation for a nation torn apart by continued and brutal injustices.  For others, the fact that Chapman was first Black woman to ever write a number one country song is another example of the profound whiteness of country music.

And so, this is a moment to be placed in the context of a long and complicated history of white people appropriating Black music. It’s likely you’ve heard of Led Zepplin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” but not Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy. It’s likely you’ve heard of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” but not Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, but even that story is a little more complicated than just a white man stealing Black music.

Do things move in the reverse? Of course they can. Arguably the greatest cover song is Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” and the iconic drum beat of Zepplin’s appropriated song, in turn, is one of the most sampled hip hop clips of all time, laying down the beat for Dr. Dre, Ice T, and Public Enemy. Neither fact does much to balance the scales.

Country music’s roots are in Black music, more than any one song can illustrate. There’s little question about the fact that country music’s rhythms, instrumentation, and vocalizing come from Black musical traditions, which have been (at best) forgotten and (at worst) violently rejected.

Occasionally this tension bubbles up, as when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” (a hilarious cultural lesson of a video) got booted from Billboard’s Country Charts, or in Ken Burns’ 2019 documentary Country Music, or with Beyoncé’s upcoming album. (I do love the history of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, told here.) To learn more, check out Dom Flemons singing Black Cowboy songs, and I implore you, listen to the original version of “Fast Car.”

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