“I had a feelin' I could be someone, be someone, be someone”

— Lyric from “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman

Who knows why those songs of yearning spoke to Chester Combs.

But they did.

Written and sung by a woman who grew up poor and Black in the urban North, they appealed to Chester, a man who grew up white and working class in the rural South.

Without that metaphysical connection there could have never been the moment at Los Angeles Crypto.com Arena on Sunday night.

It was a moment when an African American woman and an Anglo American man brought the 2024 Grammys crowd to their feet with a duet that left many viewers across the nation in tears.

More than that, it was a small, though not inconsequential, beginning of the kind of racial healing that must happen if the United States is to ever recover from its present clash of ideologies.

Americans today whisper fears of a coming civil war, but in many ways we’re already in it.

For a decade now, the crash of sprawling political movements — national populism vs. modern identity politics — have thrust us into a maelstrom of hatreds and antagonism.

On that stage in Los Angeles for one night, all of that was pushed aside, and there stood two seemingly incompatible archetypes — a Black gay woman and a white straight man, singing a song whose plaintive loveliness held a national audience spellbound.

It only happened because nearly 30 years ago in North Carolina, Chester Combs — not the man on stage — “popped” a Tracy Chapman album into the tape deck of his brown F-150 Ford pickup, where his son, Luke, would hear Chapman’s music for the first time.

For the 5-year-old boy the affection for the Black woman singer was instant, he told People Magazine. “There was this one song that really stuck out to me. ... it was called 'Fast Car.’ ”

The song is a plea for deliverance from a dreary life.

“You got a fast car / I want a ticket to anywhere / Maybe we make a deal / Maybe together we can get somewhere / Any place is better / Starting from zero, got nothing to lose”

The rhythm of the lyrics become the counterpoint to Chapman’s languid guitar lick.

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

“That song ... was my favorite song before I even knew what a favorite song was,” Luke Combs would later tell Entertainment Tonight.

Like his father, Combs would grow up working-class in a family that often went without. If they were among the working poor, young Combs didn’t know it.

“I didn’t know anything else,” he told People. “We lived in a neighborhood where everyone else was the same way.”

The boy in Ashville, N.C., had a pass to bigger things. He needed only to figure it out and refine it.

The kid could sing, his boyhood friend Austin Harper told New York Magazine’s Vulture entertainment blog. “There wasn’t a genre he couldn’t do.”

He started to teach himself guitar and one of the first songs he tried to learn was his favorite, “Fast Car.” “I finally figured it out after a month and a half or two months,” he told the Country Music Association.

Eventually Luke Combs would drop out of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and go to Nashville to try “to be someone, be someone.”

It took time, but his voice and songwriting would carry him to the top of the country charts and sold-out stadiums.

When he had won a huge following and virtually every award in country music, when he had, in the words of the Washington Post, become the “genre’s reining megastar,” Luke Combs in 2023 decided to cover an old song on his new album “Gettin’ Old”.

“What if we just did this cover of ‘Fast Car’,” he recalled saying to his crew at the time. “Just because I want to do it. I’m not doing it for anybody else. I’m just doing it for me.”

In fact, Combs, now 33, wanted to do the song because “it’s something that reminds me of being with my Dad.”

Combs’ cover of the song surprised everyone when it quickly went viral. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart and soon reached No. 2 on the Billboard all-genre Hot 100.

And it reintroduced modern audiences to the music of a now 59-year-old Tracy Chapman, who was a highly acclaimed and successful singer-song writer of folk-rock in the 1980s and 1990s.

Pretty soon, critics emerged to argue Combs, a white Southern man with a fulsome beard, had appropriated the music of a Black, gay woman.

Jake Blount, an Afrofuturist folk artist, told the Washington Post he is concerned that Chapman’s “legacy (is) being overwritten in real-time.”

Francesca Royster, an English professor at DePaul University, told the newspaper, “It’s difficult to see the success of Combs’s cover knowing that country music, with its historic emphasis on ‘tradition,’ has generally shied away from highlighting LGBTQ+ artists and their stories — which is all part of the complexity of the current life of the song.”

Chapman, who shies from the public eye, showed no eagerness to amplify these themes.

She put out statement to Billboard:

“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.’ ”

In fact, country music had been formative in her career.

When she was 4 years old growing up in Cleveland, Tracy Chapman’s mother divorced her father and took sole custody of Tracy and her older sister, wrote Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond in 1988, one of the first to tell her life story.

With no alimony and little family income, her mother enrolled in welfare and worked a series of low-paying jobs, Pond wrote.

“There wasn’t much to work with,” recalled Chapman. “We always had food to eat and a place to stay, but it was a fairly bare-bones kind of thing.”

Her mother bought her a ukulele when she was 3 and eventually got her a $20 acoustic guitar.

What inspired her to start playing was a TV program that her mother loved — “Hee Haw,” a country music variety show popular in the 1970s, she told NPR.

“My mother really liked the show, so she basically had control of (the) television, ... but I loved the music and it featured Buck Owens and Minnie Pearl.

“... (The show’s musicians) just had these incredible, very decorative guitars, actually. And I’m not a fan of the decorative guitar, but I think as an 8-year-old or 7-year-old I was really drawn to it in part for that reason, and I just loved the sound of it, and I asked for a guitar.”

An excellent student, Chapman would win a scholarship to an elite Episcopalian prep school in Connecticut and would later study anthropology at Tufts University on the outskirts of Boston.

There she played at local coffeehouses and was eventually discovered for her songs that came out of the struggles of her early life.

From there came platinum records, Grammy Awards and an invitation to play at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute.

Her career hit the top and eventually receded to a private a life with few public appearances.

These life stories were lost in Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs’ live performance at the 2024 Grammys.

They were two people whose love of music crossed the divides of generation and race.

Who told us with their stirring performance that art is universal — that it cares nothing for our walls and fences.

That in fact, it ever so gently wants to take them all down.

Phil Boas is a columnist with The Arizona Republic. Email him at phil.boas@arizonarepublic.com.

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How Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman bridged our civil war

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07.02.2024

“I had a feelin' I could be someone, be someone, be someone”

— Lyric from “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman

Who knows why those songs of yearning spoke to Chester Combs.

But they did.

Written and sung by a woman who grew up poor and Black in the urban North, they appealed to Chester, a man who grew up white and working class in the rural South.

Without that metaphysical connection there could have never been the moment at Los Angeles Crypto.com Arena on Sunday night.

It was a moment when an African American woman and an Anglo American man brought the 2024 Grammys crowd to their feet with a duet that left many viewers across the nation in tears.

More than that, it was a small, though not inconsequential, beginning of the kind of racial healing that must happen if the United States is to ever recover from its present clash of ideologies.

Americans today whisper fears of a coming civil war, but in many ways we’re already in it.

For a decade now, the crash of sprawling political movements — national populism vs. modern identity politics — have thrust us into a maelstrom of hatreds and antagonism.

On that stage in Los Angeles for one night, all of that was pushed aside, and there stood two seemingly incompatible archetypes — a Black gay woman and a white straight man, singing a song whose plaintive loveliness held a national audience spellbound.

It only happened because nearly 30 years ago in North Carolina, Chester Combs — not the man on stage — “popped” a Tracy Chapman album into the tape deck of his brown F-150 Ford pickup, where his son, Luke, would hear Chapman’s music for the first time.

For the 5-year-old boy the affection for the Black woman singer was instant, he told People Magazine. “There was this one song that really stuck out to me. ... it was called 'Fast Car.’ ”

The song is a plea for deliverance from a dreary life.

“You got a fast car........

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