Hovering around number one on the country music hit list these days has been a cover by Luke Combs of a Tracy Chapman song of the late 1980s called “Fast Car.” Chapman’s version was acoustic and was placed back then in the genre “folk.” Combs has his tight band with crisp percussion, a sometimes-ominous electric bass, lots of electronic country effects, and really high production values. He uses doubling on the melody in the refrain and harmonies too.
Combs has said in interviews that the song is just about his favorite chart of all time and that he’s been listening to it since he was a boy and his father would be playing it constantly on a cassette deck in a Ford pickup truck.
Do a search on Spotify or iTunes for covers of “Fast Car” (there have been lots), and you will see what a great achievement the Combs track is. It’s not so easy to do a cover which won’t make you retch in four bars. It’s arguably better than the original because Combs can add layers of sound and build while the Chapman accompaniment just strums and swishes in regular time for many too many measures.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The compelling plaintive tone of Chapman’s voice, so strange and attractive, is more than matched by Combs’ husky, heroic voice—that of a simple man with a big heart yearning to bust free. The hit lists seem to agree. I was astonished to learn that Chapman’s original never went higher than the number six spot.
The fast car of the lyrics stands for just this: for breaking away, breaking free. You and I have been there, burdened down by responsibilities, struggling paycheck to paycheck, living in a poor part of town, looking for a better life—will things ever get better? Or just more simply, getting into that car on a summer’s day, as a teenager or in college, to head for the beach or the mountains or out from the city. The fast car in the future is what we hope will take us away from our present problems. The fast car in the past becomes something nostalgic and stands for times that we did get away, when we cannot do so any longer. It also stands for dreams we had when we were young that were never realized.
So, I remember when we were driving, driving in your car
Speed so fast, I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped around my shoulder
And I, I, had a feeling that I belonged
I, I, had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
Recently, there’s been an astonishingly foolish controversy started by a WaPo writer about whether Combs has done something unjust by appropriating the song of black woman who could never have made it in country because black women need not apply (or something like that). It’s foolish because, of course, Chapman is pleased to see her song become a hit again. She never wanted to be a country singer (as far as I can tell) and, despite more fluid boundaries now, would not count as singing in a country style. Besides, she is getting massive royalty payments. No genuine artist, in any case, would think of her creations as belonging to just her personally or her gender or race, although she did “author” them.
Some have said (like Rod Dreher on his Substack) that, rather, we should be celebrating that Chapman’s music has created another bond across races, since it’s the human condition after all to feel oppressed by the grind of poverty, when we need to endure it, and to yearn to break free. Besides, there’s something basically good and American about what a “fast car” and the open road stand for—just like “the wild” and “the frontier.” Of course, he’s right.
But anyway, I find that controversy manufactured and tedious. What is more interesting to me is the subtext underlying the fast car. Sure, we know that the fast car stands for breaking free. But breaking free toward what? What is the sought-for freedom after all? Are there answers to those questions in Chapman’s lyrics? And who is responsible for whether one breaks free or not? Whose fast car is it exactly?
Who knows whether artists understand what they compose. Plato made the point a couple of thousand years ago in his dialogue Ion that they are as if inspired by wisdom higher than themselves, because they say deep things but often cannot even explain what they’ve said. He likened an artist to an iron ring which can attract another iron ring, which sticks to it, only because it is itself suspended from a magnet.
Artists are conduits, mediums—Plato’s technical name was daemones, divinely appointed intermediaries. Chapman may say, as she has in interviews, that she wanted to express something about her mother and father when she was young and growing up in Cleveland, and how the song came to her one evening when she was testing out some tunes in the company of her dog. But then there is what the words say.
The song begins with a woman suggesting to a man that they get away and start a new life together:
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
She’s been working “at a convenience store” and “managed to save just a little bit of money.” If they can even drive across the border to the city, “You and I can both get jobs.” So, he’s not working, while she’s been hustling at a convenience store; and yet somehow, he’s got the fast car.
Then it turns out her “old man” is a problem. He’s an alcoholic and says he’s too old to work, and yet he’s actually young, although he’s abused his body with booze. Her mom has left him—“she wanted more from life than he could give” (or than he chose to give). So, this woman, our female protagonist, said to herself “somebody’s got to take care of him,” and she quits school to do so.
It’s not said, but it seems they did after all get away in the fast car. In their new life, they use it for distraction: “We go cruising, to entertain ourselves.” But he “still ain’t got a job,” while now she is working “in the market as a checkout girl.” No matter; she continues to hope that he’ll “find work, and I’ll get promoted,” and they’ll “buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs.”
And that’s just about how the song ends. In the final verses, she is continuing to do all the paid work, while he’s the irresponsible escapist. They have children now, but he avoids his responsibilities. The fast car is now his immaturity:
You got a fast car
I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids.
By the end of the song, for her, the fast car is no longer a dream path to escape but, rather, her sole hope that he’ll just up and leave. She’s tempting him, with his fast car, to follow his irresponsible urges and get out of her life for good:
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
The man she wanted to escape from her problems with has manufactured for her an equally bad life. She can’t escape it now—this guy who is oppressing her has the only fast car around—but he’d do her a favor if he “escaped” with his fast car.
By the end of the song, it has become clear that the fast car is male energy and libido and, also, male selfishness, recklessness, and irresponsibility.
Here one really should ask how Luke Combs can sing about this at all. He doesn’t change a word of the lyrics. For instance, he sings that he’s working “in the market as a checkout girl.” Okay, that doesn’t make any sense. The lyrics can’t be transposed to the plight of a white guy growing up in poverty and looking for a way to break free. It’s a complaint about irresponsible men who are neither gentlemen, workers, or fathers.
As a Catholic, I believe that “the mystery of man is made manifest only in the mystery of Christ,” and so the mystery of Christ supplies the real key for understanding this song. But does it? How does it do so?
There’s an easy moralistic answer, although no less important for being moralistic: if you are a man whom a woman looks to for being her “fast car,” really be that for her. Marry her, so that she can get away with you from her family woes. Work and work hard, so that she does not need to work if she does not want to. Spend more time with your kids than your friends. Save for that house in the suburbs. And continue to court her as you do all these things: the “fast car,” after all, is the same as the horse on which the knight in shining armor rides. That fast car needs to stick around as a symbol and sign as long as you are married. If you are a man whom a woman looks to for being her “fast car,” really be that for her. Marry her, so that she can get away with you from her family woes. Tweet This
But a deeper answer has to do with this urge to break away and get free. We may forget that for the poor this is what Christianity has always offered. You are a bride of Christ, not simply a girl at the checkout counter. Prayer takes you to mysteries far more glorious than the scenes that unfold in a fast car, even when it is traveling very fast.
Your parish church—back in the day, before churches were glorified living rooms—was the most beautiful thing you could see nearby and every day. Simply the beauty of your young wife, or the manly good looks of your husband—these were goods that lifted you out of the ordinary. (“From Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay/ And from Galway to Dublin town/ No maid I’ve seen like the brown cailín/ That I met in the County Down.”) And then Mary was a fast car: “Let me die as did glorious St. Joseph, accompanied by Jesus and Mary, pronouncing those sweetest of names, which I hope to extol for all eternity.”
You’re a Christian. You got a fast car. Maybe we make a deal.
[Image: Luke Combs (credit: Getty Images)]