What Inspired Tracy Chapman's Hit Song Fast Car?

When thinking of a song as world-wise, touching, and mournful as Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," it's hard to believe that Chapman was a mere 24 years old when it was released — and way back in 1988, no less. Chapman released "Fast Car" on her debut album, and both the track and the album garnered her three Grammys out of five nominations: Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Contemporary Folk Performance. We're guessing that few people would object to such accolades. Since then, "Fast Car" has been a cover favorite for other artists like country singer Luke Combs in 2023.

The lyrics of "Fast Car" paint a clear, moving picture of a young couple struggling to get by, coming from difficult backgrounds, and ultimately needing to make a decision to leave their town and escape, or stay trapped there forever. The car in the song is the means of escape, freedom, and belonging all in one. It's not hard to see how such lyrics, on top of the music and Chapman's voice, contributed to the song's universality and staying power.

But with lyrics portraying such a vivid, clear picture, some may wonder if "Fast Car" describes Chapman's own life, or paints a general portrait meant to encapsulate a feeling. Ultimately, as Chapman explained to the BBC in 2010 (via Tracy Chapman Online), she started writing the song without any specific people or events in mind. But as she wrote, her mind wandered to her mother, who raised Chapman by herself. 

Growing up in Cleveland

Sites like Distractify mention how "Fast Car" reflects Chapman's childhood growing up in a poor area of Cleveland, and also reflects how an "excessive reliance on others for an improved future might result in disappointment, accentuating the importance of self-sufficiency in confronting life's challenge." That first part fits the song, but the second part is a bit overwrought for an organic songwriter like Chapman. Such an analysis might be applicable to "Fast Car" after the fact, but it doesn't describe what inspired or drove Chapman to write her song to begin with. Like a lot of great art, "Fast Car" wasn't driven by ideas, but a specific, personal sentiment that happens to connect with others.

As Chapman said on BBC Radio (via Tracy Chapman Online), "Fast Car" is like her window into the world of her upbringing. She said, "I was just watching people, being in a community of people who were struggling. So everyone was really just ... working hard [and] hoping that things would get better."

She sat down with her guitar and her miniature dachshund next to her on the couch late one night and sang the opening lines, "You've got a fast car." Her dog perked up in approval, and the song went from there. Chapman's mind wandered towards her mother, who raised her daughter as a single mom with minimal education and all the dreams and fears described in "Fast Car." Chapman envisioned when her mother and father had met, and their desire for a new life. Before long, Chapman had finished the song. 

Discovered in a coffee shop

As mentioned, Tracy Chapman's upbringing underpins the inspiration for "Fast Car." Chapman was born in 1964, one year before U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an act meant to aid the U.S. Constitution's 15th Amendment, which itself ensured that race didn't play a role in denying voting rights. Racial tensions were still high when Chapman was growing up. She told The Guardian in 2008 that she loved school and saw education as a "way out of Cleveland, and out of poverty." During her formative years, she also gravitated toward guitar and songwriting. 

Eventually, Chapman got a scholarship to Tuft's University in Massachusetts, and while still a student she regularly played her music in coffee shops. When Brian Koppelman, the son of SBK music publishing needed a performer for a rally he was putting together, he told Rolling Stone he sought her out: "Somebody told me that there was a good protest singer I should try and get. So I went to see her, and lo and behold, there was Tracy Chapman, exactly like she is now, performing for 100 people." That performance eventually led to a record deal. 

Interestingly, "Fast Car" almost didn't make the cut for Chapman's debut, 1988 album. The label thought the song was too folksy and too long. David Kershembaum, Chapman's producer, told Rolling Stone cutting the song "just didn't work. You had to build the story and let it explode." 

"Fast Car" became the album's lead single, hit No. 6 on the charts, and the self-titled album featuring the now classic song of struggle and hope won Chapman three Grammys.