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Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car' is the country song we didn't know we had

Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" takes a simple, Springsteenian plea for escape and uses it as a jumping-off point for a life's story. Sounds like a country song.
Bryan Bedder
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Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" takes a simple, Springsteenian plea for escape and uses it as a jumping-off point for a life's story. Sounds like a country song.

This essay originally appeared in NPR Music's weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

As a small-town kid in the 1980s, I fell in love with music via MTV and the ritual of transcribing the American Top 40 every Sunday. But I was just out of range of the nearest college radio station, and the grocery store where I worked as a stock boy played only country, so it took a while for me to be struck by two vastly different musical revelations.

The first came courtesy of the aforementioned grocery store, where my attitude toward country music evolved from haughty resentment to deep appreciation and love. Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, Rosanne Cash, Skip Ewing, k.d. lang, Keith Whitley, Michael Johnson... one by one, they'd transform in my mind from curiosities to discoveries to favorites. Sure, I'd recoil at the revanchism of a song like Hank Williams Jr.'s "If the South Woulda Won," but the country hits of the late '80s were just as often forward-looking, especially sonically: Steve Earle dropped bagpipes into the hard-bitten Southern-rock epic "Copperhead Road," Lyle Lovett worked heart and humor into the wry ruminations of "If I Had a Boat," Patty Loveless presided over a two-and-a-half-minute folk-pop masterpiece in "Timber, I'm Falling in Love," and on and on. Those songs were, and are, perfect. Stop reading this and listen to them, right now! I'll wait.

The other revelation came via the Top 40, in 1988, when I first heard Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car."

It's hard to overstate the greatness of "Fast Car": the inquisitive guitar hook, the deep well of empathy, the restraint that allows a few words ("He says his body's too old for working / His body's too young to look like his") to write chapters of their own. "Fast Car" takes a simple, Springsteenian plea for escape — "You got a fast car / I want a ticket to anywhere" — and uses it as a jumping-off point for a life's story. Chapman's narrator seeks anything but the life she has, seizes an opportunity and makes a go of it, only to find herself a breadwinner whose job "in the market as a checkout girl" isn't enough to keep her out of a shelter. As her situation improves, her needs and ambitions evolve with it: Now paying the bills herself, she sums up the state of her relationship in a few evocative words ("You stay out drinking late at the bar / See more of your friends than you do of your kids") and seeks a fresh escape. In four minutes, she's crafted a novel's worth of storytelling — about desperation and ambition, about subsistence and striving, about the way hope can curdle into disappointment before blooming into a fresh call to action.

"Fast Car" knocked me flat in 1988, and it still knocks me flat today, every time. You can only imagine how much it stood out on Top 40 radio in between, say, "Wild, Wild West" and "Kokomo." I used some of my grocery-store earnings to buy Chapman's self-titled debut the second I laid eyes on it, brought it home and blasted it on the turntable in my bedroom. Soon, my dad was pounding on my door. I turned down the sound and shouted an apology, only to hear his voice from the hallway: "This is incredible. Who is this?" Dad had been a music reviewer himself, years earlier — he loved to brag that The Cleveland Press's readers criticized him for saying that Bob Dylan would be the next Woody Guthrie — so I felt like a true tastemaker, maybe for the first time ever.

***

I'll confess to having mostly tuned out of country radio in the years since, sometime after Garth Brooks — whom I loved instantly and still adore — helped transform the genre into what felt like a homogenous, stadium-friendly juggernaut. Over the years, I'd come to despair at what felt like an endless sea of country dudes with two first names, singing about Friday nights, the male gaze and paeans to living in the smallest possible world. I'd find a winner here and there along the way — including Hank Williams Jr.'s daughter Holly Williams, who really needs to put out another record someday — but rarely celebrated country radio as the den of discovery it used to be.

Then, a month or so ago, my partner and I were flipping stations during a drive, landed on a country station and heard the opening strains of "Fast Car," as performed by Luke Combs. We did a bit of hand-fighting over rights to the dial, as my curiosity butted up against her fury at the audacity of a white guy trying to turn "Fast Car" into a country song. We listened, and ... damned if Combs doesn't pull it off. He even passed the test I'd set for him the minute I decided to listen: He didn't change the words in the line, "Now I work in the market as a checkout girl." Didn't change the job, didn't change "girl" into a gender-neutral monosyllable like "clerk," just sang the words as written.

What I heard in Combs's cover, and what I keep experiencing as I've revisited it in the weeks since, is my own personal perfect storm of nostalgia — for a moment when country music opened my mind, and when a sheltered kid in Iola, Wis., learned that there are Americans out there who seize their opportunities, work hard and still live in shelters. The plainspoken chorus — "I remember when we were driving / Driving in your car / Speed so fast, it felt like I was drunk / City lights lay out before us / And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder" — felt then like a perfect, universal encapsulation of youth: a headrush of opportunity, joy, escape, connection. I feel that same mix of sensations listening to Combs, coupled with the sense of kinship that comes with knowing that someone else out there grew up with the song and came out feeling the same way.

Accompanying that kinship is a sense of hope — hope for a world with fewer boundaries and binaries and roped-in genres, where a North Carolina kid like Combs could grow up listening to Tracy Chapman and experience her as a gateway to telling truths about humanity and the world. It's not just a collective rediscovery of "Fast Car" that thrills me. It's the idea that somewhere, another small-town kid is turning on country radio in 2023 and experiencing the same world-expanding cocktail of wonder and discovery that I did.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)