The Surprising Return of Tracy Chapman

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Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs performing “Fast Car” during the 66th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 4, 2024

Tracy Chapman was 45 years old when she finished her 2009 summer tour at The Fillmore in San Francisco. Although she had achieved every level of success as a recording artist, her career was at a bit of a crossroads, the very name of her second studio album, released 20 years earlier.

Chapman’s self-titled 1988 debut was one of the music industry’s great artist development stories. Born on March 30, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio, she enrolled at Tufts University, majoring in Anthropology, while also singing in coffee houses and night clubs and doing street performing around Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. She was discovered by Brian Koppelman, a fellow student, who told Rolling Stone a year later, “I was helping organize a boycott protest against apartheid at school, and [someone] told me there was this great protest singer I should get to play at the rally.”

Koppelman swiped a demo tape from the college radio station and played it for his father, Charles, a veteran music industry executive. Soon signed to Elektra Records, Chapman’s debut album featured 11 original compositions, including “Talking ’bout a Revolution” and “Fast Car.” Defying all odds for a debut album from a Black female singer-songwriter, 1988’s Tracy Chapman topped the album charts around the world, including the U.S., where it was certified 6x Platinum. It went on to become one of the most successful debuts of all time, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide. It remains one of the most successful albums by a female artist in history.

In an alternative universe, Chapman’s performance at the 66th annual Grammy Awards on February 4, 2024, where she performed “Fast Car’ as a duet with country superstar Luke Combs, would be the icing on the cake of a career filled with a more traditional album-tour, album-tour routine. Instead, the performance, which has since received headlines around the globe, along with plenty of social media discussion, was just Chapman’s fourth public performance in 15 years. Hers is a story of quick, early stardom that turned into an equally abrupt fadeaway.

Two months after her debut album’s release, Chapman performed “Fast Car” at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute at London’s Wembley Stadium, giving her access to the world stage.

The young musician had an astounding six nominations at the Grammy Awards in February 1989—the album’s producer, David Kershenbaum, was also up for Producer of the Year—and although she didn’t win any of the big three (for Album, Song and Record of the Year), she did take home the hardware three times, most notably for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (against both Joni Mitchell and Whitney Houston, among others). She was just 24 years old.

Related: Our feature on 10 Grammy Best New Artist winners and losers

Chapman’s next albums yielded no hit singles. Such is often the case when an artist’s debut surpasses all expectations and the label wants a quick follow-up. And despite a 30-month gap, her third LP was also bereft of a hit. It would be three-and-a-half years before she released a fourth album in 1995, the aptly titled New Beginning. Teamed with producer Don Gehman (John Mellencamp, R.E.M.), the LP returned Chapman to the top of the charts, thanks to the hit single, “Give Me One Reason.” She earned another five Grammy nominations, including, once again, for Song and Record of the Year, winning Best Rock Song. It all helped the album sell more than five million copies in the U.S. alone.

She told interviewer Charlie Rose, “I was at a place where I actually felt I had enough of the music business. It was wonderful to have the success of the first record and it created so many opportunities for me. But it was also kind of stressful for a person who likes to be pretty private.”

Tracy Chapman, during her 1996 interview with Charlie Rose

In 1997, she recorded a duet with B.B. King of “The Thrill Is Gone” on his Deuces Wild album, which also featured collaborations with other artists. She continued to be a much sought-after performer, appearing at such prestigious events as Farm Aid and the Bridge School concerts organized by Neil and Pegi Young. Chapman returned to the Tufts University campus in 2004 when she received an honorary doctorate of fine arts.

Her heralded return to the top was short-lived, however. It would take well over four years for a follow-up, one of just four albums she released over the next 13 years. All of the singles released during this time failed to resonate with the public. Nonetheless, Chapman toured extensively in Europe and the U.S. in 2008-2009 for the “Our Bright Future” solo tour, named for her 2008 release, with its ironic title.

Yet even with such acclaim as a storyteller and her significant success, she came close to disappearing from public view. The comprehensive website reveals the tour came to a close on August 22, 2009, when Chapman was just 45 years old. The site tracks her next appearance as three years later when she performed “Hound Dog” and “Sweet Home Chicago” (with Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck, Gary Clark Jr., and others) to salute Buddy Guy at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors that December.

It would be another two-and-a-half years before she again returned to public view, performing “Stand By Me” on one of the final episodes of Late Show With David Letterman, on April 16, 2015. That gap between appearances would lengthen significantly before her next guest slot, on Late Night With Seth Meyers, when she encouraged people to vote, playing “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” on Nov. 2, 2020.

That proved to be her last until the 2024 Grammys. On a night marked by a comeback performance by Joni Mitchell and with Billy Joel performing his first new single in nearly two decades, Chapman and country superstar Combs collaborated on an unforgettable duet of “Fast Car.”

The country superstar and 2x CMA Entertainer of the Year is a multi-platinum, award-winning artist from Asheville, N.C. He’ll turn 34 on March 2.

The performance represented a moment of confluence as it came 35 years to the month since Chapman first performed the song at the Grammys and followed a year of unprecedented success for Combs with the song as it’s been introduced to a new audience, topped charts across genres, garnered millions of streams, won two awards at the 2023 CMA Awards (Song of the Year for Chapman and Single of the Year for Combs) and was nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at this year’s GRAMMY Awards.

A historic moment, the performance found Chapman reuniting with musicians from the song’s original recording—Denny Fongheiser (drums) and Larry Klein (bass)—as well as her longtime band members Larry Campbell (fiddle) and Joe Gore (guitar). The group was also joined by Combs’ band member Kurt Ozan (pedal steel).

So how did it happen? Rolling Stone reports that discussions for the collaborative performance began months earlier. Chapman finally agreed once it was determined that the backing band would have enough time to prepare.

“The one thing that was really mentioned was that there was enough time to rehearse, for both artists to come together and have enough time to explore, to play through it,” Grammys executive producer Raj Kapoor told Rolling Stone. “There’s a lot of different things on our show—sets, production, visuals—but ultimately, this performance was about the music and the song.”

Chapman’s friend Matthew Rankin, a senior record label executive, shared that the first time the two performers met was at the first rehearsal on the Tuesday before the awards show on Sunday. Combs’ manager Chris Kappy said the pair spoke for 20 minutes before beginning.

“She had a vision, and she asked Luke his thoughts. Then they just kept running through it and running through it,” Kappy said. “It was a fun way to watch two artists create the moment that we were going to have all together on the Grammys.”

There’s no way of telling whether the notoriously shy Chapman will return to the public eye. She could certainly sell-out venues everywhere.

On Feb. 9, days after the acclaimed performance, Combs posted the following on his social media platforms: “What an unreal Grammy week to say the least. There were so many laughs, tears, hugs, and cheers that it almost doesn’t seem real. From the hotel hangs and rehearsals, to the dinners and post show pizza, the vibes were HIGH. I want to thank my whole team for working tirelessly to make this happen and my wife for always being by my side, I love you. When it comes to the performance it’s still hard to process how amazing it really was to be up there on that stage. No doubt a defining moment of my career. Tracy, I want to send my sincerest thanks to you for allowing me to be a part of your moment. Thank you for the impact you have had on my musical journey, and the musical journeys of countless other singers, songwriters, musicians, and fans alike. I hope you felt how much you mean to the world that night. We were all in awe of you up there and I was just the guy lucky enough to have the best seat in the house.”

Combs first heard the genre-spanning song as a child while listening with his father, and it has since become one of his favorite songs. Combs performed “Fast Car” during his live shows over the past decade before releasing his own version in spring 2023.

He made history last summer as the first artist to simultaneously hold the top two spots on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. This record comes as Combs’ single, “Love You Anyway,” reached #1—his 17th consecutive #1, yet another unprecedented feat—while his version of “Fast Car,” remained at #2, after topping the chart earlier last summer for five consecutive weeks. Combs’ version also hit #1 on the Hot AC chart. The song also reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—topping Chapman’s own 1988 peak—and was certified 2x Platinum.

Combs will continue to tour in support of the release of his fourth album, Gettin’ Old—a companion to his acclaimed 2022 record, Growin’ Up—which was released last spring via River House Artists/Columbia Nashville. Tickets are available here and here. The album was produced by Combs, Chip Matthews and Jonathan Singleton. Combs’ recordings are available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

As for Brian Koppelman, the Tufts University student who discovered her? After beginning his career as an A&R rep for a variety of labels, he moved to television and film. He co-wrote the screenplays for the feature films Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen, among many others, with his writing partner David Levien. He since went on to co-create the long-running drama, Billions, for Showtime.

Although Chapman does not have her own social media platforms, this much-followed Facebook page is a great source for information about her. Her recordings are available in the U.S. here and in the U.K. here.

Greg Brodsky

2 Comments so far

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  1. Cisley
    #1 Cisley 11 February, 2024, 01:28

    Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs performing “Fast Car” was the stand out performance of the Grammys by a mile. I continue to watch it on Youtube.

    Thank you so much for this article, Greg. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Reply this comment
  2. V2787
    #2 V2787 15 February, 2024, 16:42

    What a transcendent moment at the Grammys! Just…wow. The song, the singers, the situation, the social climate–all of that came together, and it was magical. Did you see Taylor Swift and Brandi Carlile standing there in awe? How cool was that?

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