How Luke Combs’ Cover of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ Went From Concert Staple to Hot 100 Hit
"We all felt that it was the perfect song to crossover to a new audience that we didn't particularly have," says Make Wake Artists founder Chris Kappy.
Over the past few years, country superstar Luke Combs has succeeded in crossing over to a pop audience with a pair of Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits: 2020’s “Forever After All” (No. 2) and last year’s “The Kind of Love We Make” (No. 8). Now he’s gunning for a third, with his cover of Tracy Chapman‘s 1988 hit, “Fast Car,” reaching No. 14 on the tally this week (it’s also sitting pretty at No. 2 on Hot Country Songs).
It’s rare for a country artist to record a cover of a pop hit, but as a fan-favorite staple of Combs’ live shows, “Fast Car” built up a head of steam that was undeniable, making the choice to get it on record an easy one (the song is included on Combs’ latest album, Gettin’ Old). But the decision to release it as a single — an even more unusual move — was part of a strategy to continue expanding Combs’ fanbase to a pop audience. And that helps Combs’ manager, Make Wake Artists founder Chris Kappy, earn the title of Billboard‘s Executive of the Week.
Below, Kappy discusses the choice to finally record “Fast Car” six years after Combs first released a snippet of it, the track’s embrace by radio programmers and how it ties into Combs’ success as a worldwide touring phenomenon. “Being able to have a hit that is globally recognized and accepted outside of country radio, and into the ears of CHR and Hot AC listeners, is very much the same thing as being able to do sold-out shows in places we have never been,” says Kappy. “The music is traveling and we want to be on the forefront in any way possible.”
This week, Luke Combs’ cover of “Fast Car” hit No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on Hot Country Songs. What key decision did you make to help make this happen?
I got out of the way. I know that sounds weird, but it truly is what we do with Luke. He knows his fanbase so well, and he also knows what works. The song felt right when he sang it in the studio, and we all just nodded in the control booth.
“Fast Car” was a popular staple at Luke’s live shows, but the decision to record the cover for Gettin’ Old — and especially to release it as a single — feels like an outside-the-box move. What was behind that?
The demand from our fans has been rabid for “Fast Car” since he first released a snippet of it more than six years ago. We also felt that it would help draw non-country fans into the genre and experience the wonder that is country music. This song is an iconic masterpiece and we all felt that it was the perfect song to crossover to a new audience that we didn’t particularly have.
It’s interesting to note that Luke kept the “checkout girl” lyric instead of changing it to “checkout boy.” What was behind the decision to stay 100% faithful to the original lyrics?
Luke is a songwriter too and Tracy is one of his favorite artists. So his goal was to never change the song. His goal was to honor the perfection that it is, and changing the gender never crossed his mind.
Was there a good-faith attempt made to reach out to Tracy and ask her permission to cover the song, even though that wasn’t required? If so, did you all track her down, and what, if anything, was her response?
At this level, our labels and teams have been in communication and we were always going to follow her lead. [Neither] Luke, nor I, have spoken directly to Tracy. This is her song and we were going to live within any parameters she had for her song. We are just happy we were able to release it and see the response of fans enjoying it.
Are there plans to make a video?
If given the opportunity, we would love to be able to create a visual piece that would only enhance this already amazing song.
Are there any plans for Luke and Tracy to perform the song together?
As of right now, no. But we never say never to anything.
Big pop covers are a bit of a rarity these days — the trend has swung more toward interpolations recently, which allows songwriters to keep a bigger piece of the publishing pie. But are there advantages to trying to break a cover as opposed to an interpolation?
I don’t think we were looking to make money off of this, as much as Luke wanted to be able to deliver a great song, that has shaped his musical career, and give it to a new generation and genre of fans. Luke doesn’t think, “How can I make money off of this,” more so, how can he give the fans a look into the music that shaped him?
Is it tough going to radio with a big cover in 2023? There are so few conventional covers on the airwaves these days. Do you have to demonstrate a song’s strength at streaming before program directors will even start a conversation with you about putting it in rotation?
Luckily, this song has hit home with a lot of programmers. It has given them the opportunity to showcase a song they also love. We are having streaming success, very early out of the gate, but we are also having radio success running parallel with it. It’s fun to see the both running, hand in hand, with one another.
Luke already saw success with Billboard top 10 hits like “Forever After All” and “The Kind of Love We Make.” What could the success of “Fast Car” at pop radio mean in terms of exposing him to a new audience?
We have always wanted to bring our genre to the ears of more people. That’s why we play shows internationally and invest in Europe, Australia, and Canada. Being able to have a hit that is globally recognized and accepted outside of country radio, and into the ears of CHR and Hot AC listeners, is very much the same thing as being able to do sold-out shows in places we have never been. The music is traveling and we want to be on the forefront in any way possible.
Speaking of crossover success, Luke is at such a career high point all around, including as a global touring star — rare for a country artist. Do these kinds of big successes at pop radio help his act translate to an international audience?
Luke has already laid the groundwork for his global success before this release. What I think happens now, is that we are able to widen our focus so when we do come back to other countries, we can welcome more fans and give them the experience that is three chords and the truth. It’s all we have ever wanted to do.