What part of fast in “Fast Car” did anyone not understand? Country superstar Luke Combs’ cover of the 1988 Tracy Chapman classic proved to be as turbocharged as anything acoustically based in this world can be, with unexpected multi-format success: It was No. 1 at adult pop and country for two weeks each; a healthy No. 6 at Top 40 radio; No. 2 on the Hot 100; and No. 1 on Billboard’s overall Radio Songs chart for four weeks.
At country radio, Combs was experiencing an embarrassment of riches, because before “Fast Car” caught on, Sony Music Nashville already had a different song, “Love You Anyway” — the lead single from his “Growin’ Old” album — on the fast track to become his 15th country airplay No. 1. But the Chapman cover was not destined to remain in the realm of interesting novelties. Top executives at sister label Columbia Records in New York saw his version of “Fast Car” come up in a list of songs being released to streaming on a new-music Friday, along with the rest of the album tracks, and quickly began to wonder if that could work on the pop side.
More from Variety
“We already had two tracks at radio at the exact same time, and we were having to pick and choose,” says Chris Kappy of Make Wake Artists, who co-manages Combs. Those two songs, in the first stage, were actually “Love You Anyway” and “Five Leaf Clover,” both of which the singer had offered fans in advance of the album, under the theory that country listeners are so passionate about Combs, a double-offering wouldn’t dilute any efforts.
“‘Love You Anyway’ was a fan-selected single,” says Liz Cost, VP of marketing for Sony Music Nashville. “It was kind of a unique angle: Luke wanted to (cement the single choice) once the album was out,” she notes, in contrast to the typical country pattern of putting out a first single as much as six months prior to an album release. “He wanted the fans to choose the next single, and they were so passionate about ‘Love You Anyway'” that it was picked to go ahead of “Five Leaf Clover” as the track that would get the big push to No. 1.
Meanwhile, “We didn’t know if we were even going to be able to go to radio with ‘Fast Car'” down the line, then alone right then, Kappy says. “Who knew that ‘Fast Car’ was going to do what it did and then end up jumping one” of the two songs that’d already been delivered to radio? “We had to pull one down (“Five Leaf Clover”) because ‘Fast Car’ started to go crazy. We had to make a very quick pivot when it went wide outside of country.”
Crossover to pop formats was not part of the plan. Brady Bedard, Columbia’s senior VP of pop promotion, was one of the song’s NYC drivers. He recalls his team’s execs convening “on a Friday morning and saying, ‘Hey, did you see Luke Combs put out a song called “Fast Car” on Today’s Top Hits?’ We got really excited about it, like, ‘That’s in the family. We have to figure out how to do this. That’s going to work.’ It sounded pop to us right away. It immediately had elements that could lead to pop success. And between sister labels, I think it was a perfect marriage.”
But then, “also, “we had to get clearance to do it,” Kappy says. He means from Chapman herself. They had already received the blessing of the apparently retired singer-songwriter to cover her song, but now they wanted her permission to fully promote it to radio — even though, technically, they shouldn’t have needed it. “Whatever way she decided to go, we were going to go. We’re just not that camp, and Luke’s not that artist,” to push it to No. 1 without getting a nod of approval. “It’s her song. That’s the right thing to do, and we got to her, and it was blessed for us to do more with it.”
It wasn’t 100% across-the-board smooth sailing when Columbia New York took it to pop. Yes, “Luke Combs is a iconic, modern-day superstar in the music industry,” Bedard says. “And there was some (Chapman-era) nostalgia for programmers that we played it for. But there were also some people (programming station groups in different markets) that came back like, ‘Hey, if people want to listen to country, they can go listen to my country station. I don’t want to play it on my Top 40 Radio or Hot AC…’ Bhen the metrics started to grow, too, there was a certain line in the sand” where it couldn’t be ignored even by the holdouts. “The obstacles were very normal, but we ended up getting across it, and that’s when it started to get real fun, when people really started to see getting over those humps. And we got kind of romantic about it. We’re like, ‘But there’s a whole generation out there that needs to hear this song! That was part of our motivation to wanting to work with the radio, and part of our pitch to radio: It needs to translate to a new generation.”
The pop phenomenon definitely bled back into country, with Sony Nashville bucking conventional wisdom and realizing it could steer two Combs songs to No. 1 simultaneously — just not the exact two that were first put out. “It’s definitely unheard of to have two active radio singles at once, but with Luke’s success at radio over the years, he was the artist to do it,” says Cost. She managed to stick the landing on both “Love You Anyway” and “Fast Car,” which reached No. 1 in the country format within a month of each other.
Global crossover was significant, too, since covers of beloved oldies are a universal language. An additional component in the song’s success: This pivot to promoting “Car” happened at a time when Combs was already out on his 2023 tour, with no time to make a traditional video, which might have been a blessing anyway. “We were able to capture a great live rendition of the song on tour in May; we were excited about capturing it live just because we saw how fans were singing it back and reacting to it at the show..” That, of course, came on top of the pure fan action already happening with excerpts of the nightly sing-alongs populating TikTok and Reels.
Says Cost, “Millennials and older generations feel nostalgia when they hear it because they remember it from being a kid” — just like Combs himself, who associates it with his dad — “and then you have Gen Z that maybe never even heard it before, so it was just this perfect moment of demographics coming together and them all just really feeling something with the song.”
Not to make anything in radio promotion look easy, but in country radio, it might be a bigger news story if Combs didn’t go to No. 1 with a designated single than if he did. But is the success in pop formats repeatable?
“If it happens again, great!” says Kappy of the massive crossover. “If it never happens again, it’s fine, and we’ll go back to playing all our shows for our fans, and doing two nights in stadiums in some markets — plus playing to 16 countries around the world, a lot of which has to do with this song, because it opened up a broader fan base worldwide. If it never happens again,” he reiterates, “we were on a great ride, and it was beautiful.”
Artist: Luke Combs
Songwriter: Tracy Chapman
Producers: Chip Matthews, Jonathan Singleton
Label: River House Artists/Columbia Nashville
Brady Bedard, senior VP of pop promotion, Columbia Records
Liz Cost, VP of marketing, Sony Music Nashville
Chris Kappy & Sophia Sansone, managers, Make Wake Artists
Lauren Thomas, VP of promotion & artist development, Columbia Nashville
Alaina Vehec, VP of commercial partnerships, Sony Music Nashville
100% Purple Rabbit Music administered by Gelfand, Rennert & Feldman, LLC (ASCAP)
Best of Variety