Tracy Chapman’s fame skyrocketed when she performed “Fast Car” at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert in London in 1988. She filled in for Stevie Wonder, who experienced technical difficulties, at the last minute. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On Wednesday night in Nashville, Tracy Chapman’s original song “Fast Car” was named Song of the Year at the Country Music Awards – 35 years after it was first released.

The song debuted in 1988 as the lead single for Chapman’s self-titled studio album, and promptly became a top-ten hit in the United States, winning the singer-songwriter three Grammys. However, the tune reached new heights this year after Luke Combs covered it on his album “Gettin’ Old.” His version, released in March, hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in July and No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Although Chapman was not present at the awards ceremony, the presenter Sara Evans read a statement on Chapman’s behalf: “I’m sorry I couldn’t join you all tonight. It’s truly an honor for my song to be newly recognized after 35 years of its debut.” She went on to thank the CMAs, Combs and all the fans of “Fast Car.”

Chapman is the first Black songwriter to win Song of the Year at the CMAs. While this achievement is celebrated as an extraordinary milestone in the country music industry, some critics have expressed disappointment that it took a white man covering Chapman’s song for it to receive such recognition.

“On one hand, Luke Combs is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see that someone in country music is influenced by a Black queer woman,” Holly G, founder of the Black country music organization Black Opry, told The Washington Post. “But at the same time, it’s hard to really lean into that excitement knowing that Tracy Chapman would not be celebrated in the industry without that kind of middleman being a white man.”

A study from the University of Ottawa found that only 0.03 percent of all songs played on country radio from 2002 to 2020 were by Black women. Plus, less than 1 percent of the 411 artists signed to the three major country music labels are people of color.

Neither Chapman nor Combs have publicly commented on the lack of representation. When Comb’s version first came out, Chapman gave it the stamp of approval, telling Billboard in July that she never expected to see her name 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.’”

Combs, who has publicly confirmed that Chapman is receiving royalties for the song, spoke to Billboard separately to express his awe at the “perfect” song Chapman wrote, which he said everyone can relate to and sing along to. “That’s the gift of a supernatural song writer. The success of my cover is unreal and I think it’s so cool that Tracy is getting recognized and has reached new milestones. I love that she is out there feeling all the love and that she gave me a shout-out! Thank you, Tracy!”