February 6, 2024

A Message Behind the Hit Song “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman & Covered by Luke Combs.

The first time I heard the Tracy Chapman classic, “Fast Car,” in 1988, I was blown away.

Her mellow, warm voice and vivid narrative beckoned listeners into the world of the storyteller. Thirty-five years later, country singer Luke Combs brought the song into the spotlight again. He won song of the year at the Country Music Awards in 2023, and Chapman was acknowledged for song writing credits.

Last night, the two joined forces on the Grammy stage to the delight of the in-person and television audience. From the first strum on the guitar strings and the familiar chords, I was watching the reaction of the folks there and noticed the seemingly ever-present Taylor Swift singing and swaying along, as well as tender looks by Brandi and Catherine Carlile and Meryl Streep and one of her daughters. I caught the audience loving on them with their standing ovation, and at the end of the song, Luke motioned to Tracy and bowed in her honor. He seemed giddy and a bit smitten in the presence of this legendary singer songwriter with gorgeous dimples for days.

Goosebumps and tears.

Combs’ cover brought the song to a new generation. The original never went out of style; it just didn’t get as much airplay, three decades and change, on. I appreciate that Combs maintained the gender of the storyteller as female. It was controversial when he decided to sing one of Chapman’s signature songs since it was getting renewed attention when it was recorded and performed by a white male country singer. Chapman’s response was a heartfelt endorsement.

“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’ comment, “The success of my cover is unreal and I think it’s so cool that Tracy is getting recognized and has reached new milestones.”

Following their Grammy performance, the song rose to No. 1 on the iTunes Top Songs chart. The worldwide viewers offered their commentary.

One that tickled me, “Not lost on me that a black queer artist and a white country singer came together to sing a song about belonging. America is starved for connection across divides and that performance shows how much music has the power to heal.” ~ Katie Crosby

Over the years, I have come to realize a deeper meaning in the song.

It starts out with the narrator talking about her family of origin and the dysfunction that she has come to terms with even as she is unhappy with it.

“See, my old man’s got a problem / He live with the bottle, that’s the way it is / He says his body’s too old for working / His body’s too young to look like his / My mama went off and left him / She wanted more from life than he could give / I said somebody’s got to take care of him / So I quit school and that’s what I did.”

She then goes on to talk about a relationship with a partner who sadly mirrors the one in which she became the parentified child, looking after her father. She does all the work, while this partner hangs out at the bar with buddies. She talks about someday, maybe moving out of the homeless shelter once her partner gets a job and she gets promoted. She expects life to be better if….

I wonder whether she paid for the gas for the “fast car” and for the car itself. Later in the song, we find out that they also have children. So, here she is, working as the sole support for her partner and children, as she also pays for this person’s addiction.

As a therapist, I find myself hoping that Chapman wrote the song as a cautionary tale, not to enable a parent or partner’s addiction and not to take responsibility for their decisions.

Sometimes people attract or accept those in need since they themselves don’t know how to live as anyone other than a caregiver. It is a form of codependence that I call “savior behavior.” She sings about the car as a metaphor for movement and escape. The truth is, they can’t go fast enough or far enough to get away from what is weighing them down, since it will always follow them.

“You got a fast car / Is it fast enough so you can fly away / You gotta make a decision / Leave tonight or live and die this way.”

I wonder if Chapman could write a song that is the next chapter, in which she gives the partner an ultimatum and tells them they need to sober up and get a job or the relationship is over. Her partner goes to rehab and AA and gets clean. She goes to therapy and Al-Anon or CODA (Co-dependents Anonymous) and their relationship can be on the right track. They break the generational addiction cycles so that their children don’t find themselves in the same position.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” ~ Socrates 


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