Tracy Chapman’s appearance at the 66th annual Grammy Awards helped breathe new life to her hit song “Fast Car” and take the song back to the top of the charts. After the singer-songwriter took the Grammy stage with country singer Luke Combs on Sunday night, her 1988 hit rose to No. 1 on iTunes in less than 24 hours.
The duo sang a rendition of “Fast Car” while playing guitar in a rare appearance from Chapman, who last performed in 2020 (when she sang “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” on Late Night With Seth Meyers) and hasn’t toured since 2009. Chapman had originally performed “Fast Car” solo at the 31st annual Grammy Awards in February 1989.
Combs released a cover of the track in April 2023 that quickly became a fan-favourite, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the country music charts. In July 2023, Chapman acknowledged the song’s resurgence in popularity, saying she was happy to see that people are still enjoying it over 30 years later.
“I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honoured to be there,” she told Billboard at the time. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.'”
“Fast Car” was originally released as the lead single from Chapman’s self-titled debut studio album back in 1988. Speaking with Q magazine, Chapman said: “It’s not really about a car at all… basically it’s about a relationship that doesn’t work out because it’s starting from the wrong place.”
In celebration of the song’s resurgence here are ten things that you may not have known about Tracy Chapman’s hit song “Fast Car.”
1. Demo tapes and getting signed
Tracy Chapman’s music career kicked off when she made a demo tape at the campus radio station at Tufts University, where she earned a degree in anthropology and African studies. A fellow student named Brian Koppelman liked her music and brought one of her tapes to his father, Charles Koppelman, who worked for SBK Publishing. He signed her to a management deal and helped land her deal with Elektra Records. Chapman was signed to Elektra Records by Bob Krasnow in 1987 and released her debut album, Tracy Chapman, the following year on April 5, 1988.
2. Writing “Fast Car”
Chapman wrote the track late one evening in 1986. “I had a small dog, a Miniature Dachshund, and the dog was staying up with me,” she explained to the BBC World Service back in 2010. “She didn’t always stay up if I stayed up late, I think she was sitting on the couch right next to me, when I first started writing the music and the first few lyrics, I think the first part of the song that came to me was the first line ‘You’ve got a fast car…’”
With that, the dog’s ears pricked up. Clearly, she knew Tracy was on to a winner. At this stage, Chapman had no real idea who she was writing the song about, though she would later ponder if she’d been thinking about her parents when they were young, their first meeting and their desire to start a new life together. Neither of them had much in the way of education, so life was hard. Of course, that didn’t stop them from yearning for more. The lyrics kept on coming, and soon Chapman had a finished song on her hands.
3. The meaning
In the BBC radio series Striking A Chord, Chapman talked about the meaning of “Fast Car.”
“It very generally represents the world that I saw when I was growing up and Cleveland, Ohio, coming from a working-class background, being raised by a single mom and being in a community of people who were struggling,” she said. “Everyone was working hard and hoping that things would get better.”
“It wasn’t directly autobiographical,” she continued. “I never had a fast car. It’s a story about a couple and how they are trying to make a life together and they face various challenges.”
4. Lead single
“Fast Car” was released as the lead single from her self-titled debut studio album on April 6, 1988, a day after her self-title album was released. Later that same month Chapman was booked as an opening act for 10,000 Maniacs and she began to gradually build a following. However, the song wouldn’t enter the charts in both the US and UK until early June.
5. Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute concert
Everything changed for Chapman on June 11, 1988, when she appeared at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium in London, UK, along with big names like Whitney Houston, Peter Gabriel and Jackson Browne. Chapman did a three-song set in the afternoon that included “Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution,” (the second single from her self-titled debut album) but not “Fast Car.” Chapman thought she’d done her bit and could relax and enjoy the rest of the concert, but then just before surprise guest Stevie Wonder walked onstage, he learned that his keyboard’s floppy disk had gone missing and he left Wembley Stadium in a panic, forcing the event organizers to usher Chapman back to the stage with nothing but a microphone and her guitar. As the organizers readied the stage for the following act, Chapman performed “Fast Car” and “Across the Lines” in front of a huge prime-time audience, wowing the crowd and creating serious buzz.
6. Racing up the charts
Immediately after her prime-time performance at Wembley Stadium, “Fast Car” raced up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, landing at #5 in the UK on July 16 and #6 in America on August 27. In the US, her album also hit #1 on that date. Before the concert, she had sold 250,000 albums but in the following two weeks, she was said to have sold two million.
7. The music video
The music video for “Fast Car” was directed by Matt Mahurin and shows Chapman in a dark vignette in front of several photographs, but rarely looking at the camera. While she sings the song and plays the guitar video clips of small town and city life play throughout. The music video got heavy airplay on MTV, BET, and VH1, covering a lot of ground and helping propel the song up the charts.
8. 1989 Grammy Awards
“Fast Car” received three Grammy Award nominations the following year: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. At the 31st annual Grammy Awards, which were held on February 22, 1989 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, “Fast Car” won the Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Chapman also won for Best New Artist, and her Tracy Chapman album took Best Contemporary Folk Recording. Chapman performed “Fast Car” to close out the ceremony and her three wins were more than any other winner that year.
9. Dance covers
Since the release of Chapman’s original in 1988, the song has had success with a number of cover versions. Two of the most notable are two popular electronic dance versions by British DJ Jonas Blue and Swedish DJ Tobtok that were released near the end of 2015.
The producer Jonas Blue was just 21 when he released his version; he wasn’t alive when the original was released, but it was one of his mother’s favorite songs, so he heard it a lot growing up in England. He struggled to find a vocalist to bring the song to life, but he hit the mark when he tried a young singer named Dakota, whom he spotted performing in a pub. She ended up being the vocalist on the track. This version went to #1 in Australia and was a hit across Europe, reaching #2 in the UK. In America, it went to #1 on the Dance chart.
Around this same time, the Swedish remix man Tobtok (Tobias Karlsson) released his version with another mononymed vocalist, River. This version, which was accompanied by a video, was a modest hit in Australia, reaching #19.
10. Luke Combs and resurgence
There have also been notable covers of “Fast Car” by: Hundred Reasons, Mutya Buena, Kelly Clarkson, Jasmine Thompson, Sam Smith, and of course country star Luke Combs who scored a big hit in the US charts with his cover in 2023.
The country singer covered the emotional track on his 2023 album, Gettin’ Old, which was released on March 24, 2023, through Columbia Records Nashville and River House Records. His country rendition of “Fast Car” catapulted the 1988 track to a whole new audience, quickly becoming the most-streamed song off the album.
Combs has said that “Fast Car” was his first favourite song, and he learned to play guitar using it. His cover would earn Chapman some historical awards. She became the first Black woman with a No. 1 on the country charts for a solo composition, and also the first Black woman to win the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year at the 2023 awards ceremony.
Although the notoriously reclusive Chapman wasn’t present for her CMA honor, presenter Sara Evans shared a statement from the groundbreaking artist.
“I regret not being able to join you all tonight,” Chapman conveyed in her message. “It’s a genuine honor for my song to receive recognition anew after 35 years since its debut. Gratitude to the CMAs, and a special thank you to Luke and all the ‘Fast Car’ fans.”