With So Few Hit Covers in 2023, Why Is Luke Combs’ ‘Fast Car’ Doing So Well?
For the first few decades of the Billboard Hot 100 — really, close to the first half-century — cover versions were commonplace on all tiers of the chart, with artists frequently charting with different versions of the same song within the same year, sometimes within the same week. But in recent years, covers have largely fallen by the wayside, to the point where even a single cover showing up on the Hot 100 feels like a pretty big deal.
That’s what makes Luke Combs‘ version of “Fast Car,” the 1988 signature hit for alt-folk singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, feel like such a big deal. The song debuted as one of the breakout tracks from Combs’ April album Gettin’ Old, and it’s only gained momentum in the weeks since — on streaming, and now also on multiple radio formats. This week, it climbs to No. 9 on the Hot 100, now just three spots shy of the peak for Chapman’s original.
Why is this song resonating like it is currently? And does it mean we’re about to see another influx of covers on the Hot 100 in 2023? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Seems unlikely that many would have predicted Luke Combs’ biggest hit of the past year — a period with two new albums chock full of originals — would be a cover of a 35-year-old alt-folk song. What is it about Combs’ “Fast Car” or its release that is allowing it to connect in such a way?
Katie Atkinson: I think it’s twofold: It speaks to the strength of the song, which has already seen charting covers in other genres (Jonas Blue and Tobtok both made dance hits of the song in 2016), and to Tracy Chapman’s timeless songwriting, which is doing a lot of the heavy lifting here. But it’s organic as well, since Combs has been covering the song live for years, so its release on this new album was mostly fan-driven after concertgoers fell in love with his version. While it seems wild on paper, it all makes sense in action.
Jason Lipshutz: Maybe it’s just as simple as: “Fast Car” is a timeless, generation-bridging song, and Combs was the right artist to return it to the forefront of pop culture. The country star’s version of the 1988 hit is quite faithful to the original — why mess with perfection? – and Combs’ burly delivery reinterprets Chapman’s point of view without wrestling the story of “Fast Car” away from its creator. Combs has the profile to launch a new single pretty high up on New Music Friday, and put his muscle behind “Fast Car” with the release of his Gettin’ Old album; it was a surprising bet, but the right one.
Melinda Newman: Part of it is timing: Combs is not only introducing the song to a new generation, but also a legion of older fans that may have missed it the first time around because they weren’t listening to pop radio then. It’s also a good time in his career to come with a cover following the success he’s already had a pop radio. He co-writes everything he records, so fans know that for him to record a cover, much less release it as a single, is a sign of just how much the song resonates with him. His love for the song is obvious and I think that comes across to the listener, even if it’s subtle. This wasn’t a casual choice for him. Also, the song still resonates and the story is as heartbreaking now as it was in 1988.
Jessica Nicholson: The song has long been a fan-favorite during his concerts, since he first released a teaser of it six years ago, so ahead of releasing it, the song was already familiar to Luke’s fans. The song is also already familiar — nostalgic even — for a large swath of radio listeners and many radio programmers. And, unfortunately, the heartbreaking story of the working-class characters depicted in the song is still one that hits home with many.
Andrew Unterberger: “Fast Car” is a great example of a song that wasn’t country but could’ve been: Everything from the imagery (small-town stores, aging parents, speeding cars) to the winding guitar hook to the slow-build narrative structure feels like it could’ve come from Nashville: “Take your fast car and keep on drivin’” might be the most country lyric to ever serve as the denouement to a non-country song. Combs’ version serves to present the song within this highly logical new framework, at a time when it’s probably been just long enough since both the original “Fast Car” release and the last big “Fast Car” cover for the song to feel fresh again. And Combs having one of country’s biggest (and still-expanding) audiences certainly doesn’t hurt.
2. Combs’ cover is a fairly faithful one, and is arguably more interesting for the things it chooses not to change about Chapman’s version than for the ones it does. Do you think the song adds something new to the artistry and/or legacy of the original, or is it more about reintroducing a great song to potentially unfamiliar listeners?
Katie Atkinson: I think the song is mostly bringing the song to a new genre and a new generation, but Combs’ seemingly effortless vocals are a great fit for tackling Chapman’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, never tripping over the loaded verses. While I don’t think there’s a world where this version ever surpasses Chapman’s original, it’s a nice extension of its legacy.
Jason Lipshutz: The latter. Covering “Fast Car” is an interesting choice for Combs at this phase in his career as a mainstream country star, but the song has crashed the top 10 of the Hot 100 less because of his presence and more because of the song’s ability to overwhelm listeners, all these years after its release. I think of Combs’ “Fast Car” as akin to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” phenomenon last summer: While that ‘80s single hit the top 10 due to a dramatic TV synch and this one because of a cover version, both songs have proven durable enough to transcend their time periods, introduce themselves to unfamiliar young listeners, and reintroduce themselves to older listeners who had been missing their respective powers.
Melinda Newman: While it is more about introducing a song to new listeners, don’t underestimate the tender devotion that Combs brings to this new version. He’s been performing it for years, even before he was signed. The fact that he decided to keep the line “I work in the market as a checkout girl” instead of changing it to “checkout boy,” shows respect to Chapman and her original songwriting. It’s impossible to improve on the original, but Combs has taken a song that very few artists would have the courage to tackle, much less make a single, and put a new spin on it by not changing it… if that makes any sense.
Jessica Nicholson: Luke could have chosen to interpolate “Fast Car” into a newly-created song, change up the melody and/or lyrics, or even collaborate with another artist on the song to bring a new vibe to it. Instead, he chose to be largely faithful to the original, which I feel points more toward reintroducing a new audience to this enduring song—and by extension, to one of the most insightful singer-songwriters of the past four decades, Tracy Chapman.
Andrew Unterberger: More of a well-timed and respectfully delivered cover than a particularly inspired one, sure. It’s solid and his performance is good, but I personally prefer my covers to swing big and risk missing entirely — like Xiu Xiu’s tremblingly stark, almost frighteningly emotive version of the same song from 20 years ago.
3. Luke Combs has scored top 10 hits on the Hot 100 before, but this still feels like something new for him. How, if at all, do you think the success of “Fast Car” might impact his career in the long-term?
Katie Atkinson: This is the crossover moment that has eluded him. He’s had top 10 Hot 100 hits, but it’s very easy to imagine a music listener who had never heard Combs’ name or voice before discovering him through this cover. His country superstardom was already cemented, especially with his back-to-back entertainer of the year wins at the CMA Awards in 2021 and 2022, but this coupled with his recent team-up with Ed Sheeran could bring him to a whole new audience and could even make him consider music and sounds and he wouldn’t have before going into his next project.
Jason Lipshutz: The cover might unlock his appeal a bit more at pop radio: “Fast Car” is up two spots to No. 35 on the Pop Airplay chart this week, and although Combs boasts a long resumé of country radio smashes, most of those singles never crossed over to non-country radio listeners. If “Fast Car” keeps speeding up at pop formats, Combs could enjoy the type of crossover that has thus far eluded him, and become an even bigger superstar in the process.
Melinda Newman: It is going to become a career song for him that brings him an even wider audience both in the U.S. and globally. The timing couldn’t be better for him, given he is on a huge international tour, so this song is preceding him into many of the countries he’s about to hit later this year. In terms of pop radio, some listeners who have never heard his music before are getting their first exposure to him and are going to have fun exploring his numerous country hits. There’s a whole world of Combs’ music ahead of them for the exploring.
Jessica Nicholson: Luke has had top 10 hits before, but to date, he’s never purposefully ventured outside of the country music genre. This rendition largely stays faithful to the original, and demonstrates the breadth of Luke’s musical influences as well as his vocal dexterity. Given that he followed this by collaborating with pop artist Ed Sheeran on Sheeran’s song “Life Goes On” during the ACM Awards (and then officially released their collaboration), it signals that Combs is a vocalist capable of connecting with listeners across the board in multiple styles of music, while remaining true to his own artistry as a country music artist.
Andrew Unterberger: Combs might have already reached his commercial peak in terms of chart impact and first-week numbers — but his overall audience can always get wider, and that’s what a cover like this serves to accomplish. Folks who might’ve otherwise never been familiar with Luke Combs will learn of him through this cover — and though in most cases, the relationship will end there, plenty will find more to appreciate about the country superstar. Combs has long had global ambitions, and though there aren’t many doors still closed to him in 2023, this song will open a good number of those remaining.
4. While covers used to be an enormous part of the top 40 landscape, in recent years they’ve mostly been replaced in the culture by songs that rely heavily on big samples and interpolations. Do you think the success of this fairly straightforward cover of a widely known hit song will lead to more of its kind again populating the pop (or country) worlds?
Katie Atkinson: It makes me think of the early ’90s when John Michael Montgomery and All-4-One had back-to-back hits on the Hot 100 with “I Swear.” I know the country version came first in that case, but the point still stands: I think there’s something to be said for a country-fied version of a pop hit. It’s not assuming that listeners aren’t savvy enough to listen to more than one genre; it’s just giving them options for different ways to consume an across-the-board great song. I vote for more of this!
Jason Lipshutz: It’s a great question that I’m not sure how to answer at this point. On one hand, modern pop music has been ruled by original songwriting – artists presenting themselves through new statements and ideas – even when that songwriting also relies upon melodic interpolations and samples to grab a listener’s ear. On the other, TikTok has completely disrupted the commercial potential of older songs, and if I was a new artist looking at Combs’ “Fast Car” success from afar, I’d be tempted to cover a timeless hit, too. We’ll see if this hit cover remains an outlier at the top of the Hot 100, or a harbinger for the future of pop.
Melinda Newman: I hope so, but it’s unlikely. Cover songs are usually seen more as novelties or a way to pay homage to influences by an artist than a viable single. There are exceptions from the country world, of course, including Garth Brooks’ cover of Billy Joel’s “Shameless,” which went to No. 1 in 1991 (though Joel never had a hit with it) and Faith Hill’s remake of Big Brother & The Holding Company’s “Piece of My Heart,” which was her second No. 1 single in 1994. But, by and large, radio is likely to only play one cover at a time — and it feels like there’s still more artistry involved in creating something new that may include an interpolation (and owe much of its success to that interpolation, like Cole Swindell’s recent hit “You Had Me At Heads Carolina,” which interpolates Jo Dee Messina’s 1996 hit, “Heads Carolina, Tails California”) than a straight-ahead cover.
Jessica Nicholson: I think we will continue to see more interpolations, versus straight-forward cover songs. Most artists tend to contribute writing to their own songs (to varying degrees of success); an interpolation of an old song allows writers of the new song to earn a share of the publishing (as well as writers of the interpolated song), versus a straightforward cover, in which only the cover song’s writers receive payment. That said, I hope we will see more straightforward cover songs, to help further introduce a new generation of music fans to older songs, especially deeper album cuts or semi-hits.
Andrew Unterberger: Modern publishing economics will probably keep the covers market somewhat limited, but as artists continue to push too far with big-interpolation/sample songs in the hopes of landing big hits, I can imagine covers like this will feel like a more dignified way of accomplishing many of the same goals — even without the short-term financial benefits to the newer artist. Hell, in truth, “Fast Car” is already the second cover to hit the top 10 this year: Metro Boomin, The Weeknd & 21 Savage’s “Creepin” is basically a faithful cover of Mario Winans and Puff Daddy’s “I Don’t Wanna Know,” with only Savage’s rap verse being notably re-written.
5. Let’s assume the ’80s-goes-country is a winning formula: Pick your ideal combination of early-MTV-era hit and contemporary country star to score another hit with.
Katie Atkinson: I went to the year-end Hot 100 the same year “Fast Car” peaked – 1988 – and the top song is George Michael’s “Faith.” Of course, that song already had a genre-swapped cover when Limp Bizkit tackled it in 1998, but I feel like an upbeat country cover by Lainey Wilson would be perfect. (Wilson is definitely game: She covered 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 smash “What’s Up?” on her most recent album, Bell Bottom Country.)
Jason Lipshutz: Zach Bryan growling through a cover of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” – unlikely, sure, but also something I need ASAP.
Melinda Newman: I could play this game all day long and there are about 10 combinations that immediately come to mind, but I would love to hear Dan + Shay cover Foreigner’s 1984 smash, “I Want to Know What Love Is,” simply because hearing Shay Mooney, who can sign anything, take on Lou Gramm’s emotional, bombastic vocals would be awesome (Wynonna already did a potent version in 2003). Coming in a close second and third are Carrie Underwood belting Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” because she’s one of the few vocalists who can come close to Benatar’s power, and then HARDY taking on Def Leppard’s “Photograph.” He’s already shown he’s as much a hard rocker/metal head as he is a country artist, so let’s hear him do his best Joe Elliott impersonation and scream “I’ve got to have you.”
Jessica Nicholson: Little Big Town’s incredible harmonies sound fantastic on any Fleetwood Mac song (their cover of “The Chain” is delightful); I would love to hear LBT cover Fleetwood Mac’s 1987 top five Hot 100 hit “Little Lies.”
Andrew Unterberger: Sam Hunt is one of the few performers alive who could translate both the legitimate pathos and the self-pitying scumminess of a song like the Human League’s 1986 cheater’s lament “Human.” I for one would like to see him try. (Maybe his old duet partner Ingrid Andress could cameo too for the “I was human, too” response part.)