Fast Car: A Liberal Defense of Tradition

I don’t usually listen to Luke Combs’ music. I’m sure Luke Combs is fine with that. By all accounts, he seems to be doing well for himself. He lives in his world, I live in mine. Once in a while, I encroach on his world. Central Indiana, my regular locale, is a sweeping concrete cornfield. At every four way stop, there is at least one corner lot featuring a renovated farm house with a wrap-around porch. They like football here, Hoosier basketball, $25 hamburgers, alcohol, fast cars, the Indy 500 and driving in circles. They also really love Country music, new and old.

Judging by his popularity, Luke Combs has some decent tunes in his catalogue. His rendition of Tracy Chapman’s iconic Fast Car is not one of them.

This Combs fella is obviously a quality musician and I harbor more than a bit of envy for any person that can do what he does as a performer and as an artist. The song is far from a hack job, might even be called a quality rendition. But this isn’t a question of quality, not precisely. Luke Combs doesn’t lack talent. What he lacks is certain experience. His original songs made him famous because they were songs from his life, his experience, his heart. They were true even if they’re only true within the frame of artistic liberty. I don’t know his story but I do know that his Kidz Bop version of Fast Car rings hollow, like hearing a story at a dinner party that you can tell is borrowed and being passed off as a first-hand account. Wine sipped between polite mm-hmm’s as we sit and wait for it to be over so we can quickly turn our attention to something, anything else.


Recently, on the podcast Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend, Questlove talked about a hobby of his, which is the coolest hobby anyone could have: he makes playlists for celebrity friends. That’s like making mix cd’s or cassette tapes, which is a cherished form of expression for us old heads. Questlove’s custom playlists are requested by famous comedians, actors, musicians, and most notably former Leaders of the Free World. All hobbies are good, some are just less hobby and more legendary brag. During the podcast, Questlove explained that some of his playlists include cover versions of well-known songs. The playlist’s intended recipient will sometimes question the Quest, wondering if the odd cover version was an accident. His reasoning was simple: you’ve heard the original hundreds of times. Even if it is the best version that exists, there are these other artistic creations out there that are worth hearing. Questlove is a person who knows a thing or two about music. Even as a fan of covers, and all genres of music, I’m still guilty of turning my nose up at the occasional cover that I eventually come to recognize as a banger and I was being a hater for no good reason. There is purity in the artistic fiber of emulated art; it’s the rebirth of the mother lifespark that leads to our own creations and anyway all art is borrowed or stolen or influenced by other art. Aren’t we all just copies of copies anyway?

I am not one of those low-brow dislikers of cover songs, although I have been known to shout drunkenly at rip-off artists as they ruin someone else’s music in middling concert halls.Tribute bands aren’t real bands!” But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy an inspired version of an already perfect song. The best example of this that I can think of is Boyz II Men’s a cappella version of The Beatles “Yesterday”. In this case, I actually prefer the cover. Most of The Beatles are dead now anyway (Rest In Peace Yoko) - so I ain’t scared to say it - the Boyz II Men version is better. If you play them back to back, you’ll understand why. One song is happier than it should be while the other sinks deep into the pit of your stomach and stays there like all the lost days gone by.

All covers are not created (stolen) equally.


I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone

It’s hard to buy those words coming from Luke Combs when he’s already “someone”, that is, a famous name that is now looking back wistfully at that desperate feeling for escape that drove the man to follow his passion. Folks who enjoy his version aren’t looking for an escape from the doldrums of their daily life - they enjoy that part of life, that’s their wheelhouse. They’re happy already. I love that for anyone who has found peace in a world designed to keep us anxiously waiting the next jolt of fear like we’re playing an eternal game of Operation.

Combs’ initial homage to the song he remembers from car rides with his father was in the form of a campfire sing-along at his concerts, acoustic and with the crowd serenading the singer right back. My Emo heart loves a good sing-a-long. Turn that mic out to us, let me and a few thousand friends take you on a journey, maestro. You deserve to feel the love and energy back after all you expel from your creative bank.

Just don’t try to package that feeling, that moment, and sell it back to me.


Unwittingly but by my own volition, I put myself in situations where that song was bound to be playing. Namely dive bars, county fairs, and cookouts in the midwest. People around here chose the song as their summer anthem. But Fast Car is not a “summer anthem” song. It’s a bridge over the widening gorge of fall and winter months. I don’t want to hear Fast Car in the sunshine, I want to listen to it on my way home after a double-shift at the restaurant, cold November ice storms pelting my windshield and the heater in the car hasn’t worked since the day after I drove it off that used car lot. Fast Car elicits that universal desire for escape from the norm, the yearning to get out and “finally see what it means to be living” that permeates like a depressing cloud over the amber waves. I’m from a place like that in Ohio. The letters of my hometown are an acronym for Lost In Middle America. It’s a shit hole. A literal giant black hole into which all shit goes and from which few things escape. So, I do find it a bit ironic when people around this new city mope about as if they’re trapped in some dystopic hellscape. Sure, Indiana is pretty much a desolate, uninspiring state-wide kitty litter box but Carmel, my new digs, was once described to me by a bar patron as a “cute little farmin’ community, way north of Indy”. I live at the North end of Carmel and it only takes me twenty-five minutes to get to downtown Indianapolis. It’s essentially a suburb of Indy. This image of Carmel as parochial doesn’t groove with the vista of new luxury condos being constructed on the corner of Main Street. Condos which are selling for $1.5 Million and upwards. Carmel’s population is almost one-hundred-thousand. This used to be Bethlehem, USA, the towns original name. Back in the before days. Don’t get me wrong, it's lovely here. Miles of walking and biking trails weave around the city making it pedestrian friendly. It’s safe, secure, unadulterated, bland, devoid of originality and very, very white - just like Luke Combs’ version of Fast Car. And just like Luke Combs’ version of Fast Car this place is a far-cry from the thing it’s pretending to be.

If these two songs were actual Fast Cars, Tracy Chapman’s soulful, powerful original would be a 1961 Shelby Cobra. A one of a kind masterpiece we are lucky to have in our world. Ol’ boy Luke’s version would be, at it’s very best, a Cobra Replica kit car on a Mazda Miata chassis. It doesn’t sound right, doesn’t drive the same and smells like cheap oil burning.

The nicest thing I can say about Fast Car 2023 is that it sounds like a swell karaoke version of a piece of Americana that certainly deserved to have a revival, just not as a mass market product. There’s a reason that Tracy Chapman’s estate has strict rules that must be adhered to in order to reproduce her seminal work. The reason is apparent in the new version. It should be left alone by the Nashville Gang who pretend to covet tradition and American history. Except they don’t really care about history and tradition (outside of their own history and tradition and statues). The moguls of Nashville aren’t sentimental, they covet the same thing as all the other people who have a bunch of money, which is of course just more money.

As my wandering ear hears it, many people in the heartland are less than fond of Luke Combs song. From generational devoted county music fans to staunch Luke listeners, everyone seems to kind of hate this song. So why is it at the top of the charts? Well, because those things are as orchestrated as the songs on the radio. People on the ground, who actually pay money to see country music stars live in concert, they hate the song because fans of country music are not the same as the people who sell the country music. They are real, good people who have a healthy appreciation for tradition. It’s pretty simple. Keep those goofy flags off our Bud Light cans and don’t mess with the old music we love.

Luke Combs has a ton of fans because they relate to him, because his art comes from a place inside him that others have inside but don’t know how to express feelings or don’t have the courage to sing from their hearts in front of thousands of people.

The song Beautiful Crazy, from Combs debut album, was almost an afterthought. It was included on his album as a bonus track, then gained popularity through the viral nature of the internet thanks to fans that fell in love with his plight. The song touched people. All across the country, in hillbilly brothels on the outskirts of bumfuck, guys with muddy boots sing Luke’s words at the face of baby-mama No. 2, swaying together on a sticky wooden dance floor.


Yeah, she’s crazy / but her crazy’s beautiful to meeeee 

Let me tell you brother-man, as a guy born with a compass that points directly North in the presence of hot, crazy women, that song is r-e-l-a-t-a-b-l-e. 


The silver lining is that Fast Car 2023 is driving a new generation of people to discover the brilliance of Tracy Chapman’s original release, and hopefully the rest of her masterful debut self-titled album. 

All blame for this violation of a national treasure should lay with the bloated wallet-humpers running the music industry. Despite the fact that they are a conduit from artist to art appreciator, record companies are no different than any other evil enterprise hellbent on world domination by virtue of the golden rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules. So they siphon off the good from every good thing, stripping it clean to the bone, then when it’s just about time for a peaceful honorable death as beautiful art should be allowed, these warlocks resurrect the soul of the creation using ancient, nefarious fiscal incantations and release their monstrosities to harvest our bank accounts.

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