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The mutual admiration between Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs was palpable during a memorable performance at the Grammys

Michael TaubeYou’ve probably heard one of these phrases: “Catch lightning in a bottle” and “Capture lightning in a bottle.” What do they mean? An unusual or fortuitous event/occurrence has happened that needs to be immediately taken advantage of. Otherwise, the lightning will disappear and the bottle will be empty once more.

Something that occurred at this past weekend’s Grammy Awards is an example of musical lightning in a bottle.

It wasn’t Joni Mitchell’s heartwarming first-ever Grammy performance. It wasn’t Billy Joel’s show-closing performance of his first new song in 17 years, “Turn the Lights Back On,” – which was intriguing but didn’t (ahem) start a fire. It wasn’t the success of Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Phoebe Bridgers, Victoria Monét, SZA, Boygenius or Killer Mike, either.

Rather, it was one specific moment that gained an enormous amount of traction in the news and on social media. So much so that it could potentially be turned into something much bigger.

Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs

Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs

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This relates to the stunning, pitch-perfect performance of the song “Fast Car” by the most unlikely of duos, Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs.

Chapman, a talented singer-songwriter more associated with folk, blues, and roots rock, wrote and recorded “Fast Car” in 1988. It appeared on her self-titled debut album that reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Chapman won three Grammys in 1989, including Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her signature song.

She would perform at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute at London’s Wembley Stadium, Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! Tour and late-night talk shows like David Letterman and Seth Meyers. She would also win another Grammy in 1997 for the song “Give Me One Reason,” and release seven more albums between 1989-2008.

Then, she all but disappeared from the public eye. Barely seen, barely heard and barely ever on stage.

Chapman is known to be a private person. Fame and fortune aren’t necessarily her best friends. She prefers to maintain a low profile, which probably helps explain why her public appearances have diminished. Even Chapman’s sexual orientation was a bit of a mystery until writer Alice Walker claimed they had a romantic relationship in the mid-1990s. While she’s never confirmed or denied this, she’s been frequently described as a “black queer woman” and never pushed back.

Regardless, it appeared that Chapman’s time in the sun had finally set.

Which brings us to Combs. He’s become one of country music’s biggest stars in less than a decade. He’s released four EPs and four albums to huge acclaim. This includes 18 singles, of which 16 have reached the number 1 position on Billboard’s Country Airplay.

On Combs’s most recent album, Gettin’ Old, he included a cover of Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Why? According to a recent interview with People Magazine, it was his “favourite song before I even knew what a favourite song was.” His father played music for him in his truck when he was five years old. “He had a Tracy Chapman cassette tape, and ‘Fast Car’ is one of the first songs I remember. I’ve always been a huge fan of it and think of my dad and our time together when I hear it … there’s nothing like Tracy’s version, so I thought it would just be a nice complement to the original.”

Combs’s version of “Fast Car” unexpectedly soared like an eagle. It went to  Number 2 on the Billboard 100 – exceeding Chapman’s version, which reached  Number 6. It even topped the country and adult contemporary charts, to boot.

At the 2023 Country Music Association Awards last November, Combs’s version of “Fast Car” won Single of the Year. Chapman’s version won Song of the Year, the first time a black woman had ever won this award.

In a twist of irony, the white country music star had brought the black folk/roots rock star more press coverage than she had received in years. Some black artists and music historians, including Black Opry, a country music association for black performers and fans, expressed pleasure and apprehension about this unexpected development. Chapman, to her credit, didn’t follow suit. “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honoured to be there,” she told Billboard on July 6, 2023. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”

The mutual respect and admiration between Chapman and Combs was on full display at the Grammys. The former, in her first televised performance in nine years, was cool, calm and collected. The latter often looked proudly at the former, and probably couldn’t believe he was part of this incredible moment. This combination of different musical genres and generations blended perfectly. They didn’t miss a note, and smiled at each other throughout this magical performance.

When it was over, the audience erupted and social media exploded. Combs bowed down to Chapman, and Chapman held her heart to Combs. They hugged at the end, surely realizing they had made history together.

This is catching musical lightning in a bottle.

Chapman and Combs need to move quickly if they want to capitalize on this situation. Their brilliant Grammy performance should be released immediately on CD and streaming services. (Chapman’s version hit Number 1 on the U.S. iTunes charts within hours of their collaboration.) They should also consider working on an original song, EP or LP. If they opt for an album, it could be a combination of original recordings and new tracks. Their potential crossover audience is massive.

Many people enjoyed what they saw at the Grammys. They will surely want to hear more if Chapman and Combs want to rev up that fast car for one more spin.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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