Fast Car Rewind: Taking a Look Back at Tracy Chapman and the Women’s Music Movement

In mid-June, Tracy Chapman’s iconic 1988 hit, “Fast Car” rose to the top of several Billboard charts after country singer Luke Combs released a cover of the tune. Not only has Combs’s version been popular in the music charts, but it has also gone viral on TikTok, highlighting its favor among the younger generation.

Before we get too deep in the weeds of this article, it might be worth our time to take a look at a bit of history on the song. In 1988 “Fast Car” rose to number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. With Combs’s recent cover, it hit number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the Billboard Country Songwriter charts. This is the first time Chapman has had a song reach number one on any popular music chart, and the first time a Black woman has been the sole writer of a song that reached number one on a country music chart. In addition to all of this, Chapman won three of her four Grammys from this song and album.[1] Her only other hit to garner such popularity was “Give Me One Reason,” which charted at an impressive number 3 in 1996 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Given the recent popularity of “Fast Car,” we could talk about differences between Chapman and Combs’s versions, or maybe we could talk about the history of Black women’s music being hijacked by white men; one oft-cited example is “Hound Dog,” recorded by Big Mama Thornton but made famous by Elvis. However, the way I would like to use this recent popularity of Chapman’s song is to take a moment to look back at her early career, before her mass popularity, and open the door to the world of women’s music and the cultural and political moment of the late twentieth century called the Women’s Music Movement (WMM).

Tracy Chapman made popular music headlines in 1988 with two events: one was the April release of her self-titled album, which featured “Fast Car,” and the second was performing “Fast Car” on the broadcast of Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute Concert in London – an event that featured other top-billed artists such as Whitney Houston, Sting, the Bee Gees, and more. Her popularity in the video is undeniable, as you can hear that the London audience had memorized the lyrics to “Fast Car.” This performance was only two months after the song’s release and to an international audience in London, which underlines her immediate success.

It is worth noting here, though, that Chapman already had a fan base of women who heard her music from performances in years prior at women’s music festivals. Many of you may be familiar with Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair festivals from the late 1990s, where Chapman and other popular women of the era performed at women-only concerts across the country. While it was advertised as the first all-women music festival, Lilith Fair was actually following in the footsteps of a long tradition of festivals that had been supporting women musicians since the early 1970s, all part of the WMM. Chapman found early popularity in the late 1980s at these festivals and other women’s music shows, performing solo at the National Women’s Music Festival, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and opening for women’s music trailblazers such as Linda Tillery.   

In fact, before the release of her first album, Chapman appeared in the pages of a few different women’s music publications. A picture taken by Toni Anderson at the 1986 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival shows Chapman performing on the day stage.[2] The 1988 edition of WMM distribution company, Ladyslipper, Inc.’s music catalog lists Chapman’s album without knowing the release details:[3]   

The women who were listening to and following women musicians in the WMM were anxious to hear and buy Chapman’s album, having already become familiar with her music at earlier shows. Chapman’s career exploded quickly in the late 1980s after the album’s release and she went on to larger audiences than the festivals and performances on the WMM circuit, but the women who saw her first at women’s music festivals and shows considered her one of them even after she left: “We remember her as our heartthrob who has performed for us at festivals. We know her by the feelings she expresses, the feelings that reach into our hearts with courage and love. Feelings we can all relate to . . . We smile and cheer jubilantly for this shy, humble heartthrob as she takes on the world.” [4] So, what was the WMM and how did it influence and shape women’s music in the late twentieth century?  

A Brief History of the Women’s Music Movement

The Woman’s Music Movement was a cultural and political movement that organized around music by, for, and about women. Early in the 1970s, women musicians like Max(ine) Feldman, Linda Tillery, Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Holly Near, Ginny Berson, and others began performing and recording music exclusively for and about women. The WMM stands out from other cultural movements, like youth movements of the 1960s that revolved around music and festivals, because the music was unabashedly about women, what it is like to be a woman, and (most importantly) romantic love and physical attraction between women.[5] Additionally, the movement was not just about playing and recording music, but it also exploded into an entire music industry. Women created record labels, recording and distribution companies, became sound engineers, and so much more.

In addition to championing record labels such as Olivia Records, the Women’s Music Movement also supported annual women’s music festivals, concert tours, and distributed women’s music across North America and into Europe and Australia. All of this industry was done by and for women. The majority of the women involved in this movement were radical lesbian feminists who also practiced or supported feminist separatism. These women came of age at the end of the 1960s, influenced by the cultural and political tumult of the time. However, they felt excluded from mainstream politics and culture because they did not recognize or make space for women loving women.

Clearly the Women’s Music Movement was not just cultural – it also carried strong political implications. Many of the founding players in the WMM had radical political ideals and carried those with them as they developed the women’s music industry. They wanted separate spaces for women who loved women. A great example of how politics shaped the WMM founders can be seen in the example of Ginny Berson, one of the founders of Olivia Records. Berson began her political career as a member of the Furies, a collective of twelve lesbian separatists in Washington D.C. who were “committed to ending all oppressions by attacking their roots – –  male supremacy.”[6] For Berson, women’s music was a way to develop and further her political goals after the Furies split up. The original concept, that Berson shared with other founding members of Olivia Records, was that of a collective, where not only was ownership and responsibility shared, but it also meant an entire way of life. Everything from job responsibilities to housing and the women’s finances was shared.

The collective concept did not stick in the long run. Eventually Olivia incorporated. But, it is worth noting that a (music) business founded on radical ideas has had long-term success. Olivia may not operate as a record company anymore–today it is a travel agency dedicated to hosting and planning lesbian vacation packages – but it is still a business catering to and creating space for the same women-only audience as when it was founded in 1973.

Of course, the music itself was often political. In fact, one might argue that the very nature of any music written about love between two women was political since LGBTQ+ rights –everything from the right to exist to the right to marry — have been and were heavily politicized. Therefore, it is no surprise that Tracy Chapman would have early success within the WMM since her music tended to be political and speak to audiences of women, both qualities found in a large number of WMM songs. On the same album as “Fast Car,” the heavily political songs, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” and “Across the Lines” are interspersed with love songs like “For My Lover,” where Chapman sings “I follow my heart/and leave my head to ponder/deep in this love/no man can shake/I follow my heart/ and leave my mind to wonder/is this love worth/the sacrifices I make?”

While Chapman has remained very guarded about her sexuality, Alice Walker has admitted to having a relationship with Chapman in the early ‘90s. And, likely due to her popularity among lesbians in the WMM, Chapman became a lesbian icon with the release of her first album. A few other examples of heavily political music from the WMM include Holly Near’s “We Are a Gentle, Angry People and We Are Singing for Our Lives,” written on her way to a protest after Harvey Milk’s assassination, and Margie Adam’s album We Shall Go Forth. Adam’s album is an ode to women and women’s rights. The album tracks alternate between songs about romantic love between women and political support for women’s rights.

Another way we measure the success of a political or cultural movement or event is through its relative popularity and recognition. So, we might look at the careers of women musicians involved in the WMM. Truth be told, many of the musicians who have been part of the Women’s Music Movement have had modest careers. Few have “made it rich” or signed to big labels. Those who have, like Tracy Chapman, ended up leaving the WMM circuit for broader audiences.[7] Some lesser known artists have managed to maintain their careers as musicians for decades by performing in women-only spaces or in activist circles; others have had to take on side jobs or leave the profession entirely.

Holly Near is an example of a musician who has had a decades-long successful career as a WMM singer and activist. Due to her activism, her audience extends more widely than some WMM artists, and that likely contributes to her long-term success. Cris Williamson is another long-term singer and activist that has had a successful career as a musician in the WMM. Near and Williamson may not be names with mass appeal. They certainly have not had chart-topping success like Tracy Chapman (in 1988) and Luke Combs (today) with their recordings, but they both have an international reach, particularly in folk, activist, and women’s music circuits. They regularly sell out concerts at small to medium sized venues across the country and have for decades. Other artists with decades-long music careers in the women’s music circuit include Ubaka Hill, Jamie Anderson, Toshi Reagon, Margie Adam, and Linda Tillery, just to name a few. Some women musicians scrimped and saved to keep their careers afloat. A beloved musician, Kay Gardner, dedicated her career to creating music for women, fundraising and asking for donations so that her soundscapes and compositions could be recorded. While she was able to live a modest life as a WMM musician, she struggled financially when she became ill with cancer. Newsletters and correspondence from Ladyslipper, Inc. show fundraising attempts to help cover her medical costs.[8]

I want to argue that it does not matter that most of the women musicians in the WMM never made it big with a major record label or garnered mass appeal. In fact, it would go against their political ideology if they “sold out” to major labels and were in it for the money and fame. They intentionally created space for their music to be performed on the WMM festival and concert circuits – to crowds of women for whom the music was written. And those women audiences bought tickets and records, helping fund careers, even if they were modest. In fact, many of the same audiences still support WMM musicians today. As I type, women are preparing to gather for a week near Hart, Michigan at a new music festival called Big Mouth Girl (BMG) that essentially takes the place of the now-ended Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF). Hundreds, maybe thousands of women involved in this movement have been raising money to pay for the property that they affectionately call “The Land,” so that they can continue to have women-only gatherings that focus on music by, about, and for women. Of course, this separatism has had its issues recently, leading to the ending of MWMF and a policy that anyone who identifies as female is allowed to attend BMG.[9] This year, artists like Holly Near will be back performing on The Land at BMG, but there will also be new artists who are trying to continue this music tradition into the next decade.

Tracy Chapman was just a single artist who participated for a brief time in the Women’s Music Movement, and went on to major success and popularity, leaving the WMM circuit. However, I think it is valuable for us to recognize that she established an early fan base with these women in the WMM because she sang to them and about them. Her political lyrics and distinctive sound spoke to many lesbians in the late 1980s, whether she came out publicly about her own sexuality or not. Luke Combs has admitted to the influence Chapman’s song has had on him, and certainly this recent popularity helps. Recently, the Washington Post’s Emily Yahr and The Atlantic’s Connor Friedersdorf tackled the issue of race and “Fast Car,” specifically the fact that a white man is (again) having success by performing and recording a Black woman’s music.[10] Yahr gets into the lack of diversity in country music and claims that Black and brown people have been excluded from the country music arena. The article went viral after its publication, with lots and lots of comments and people taking offense to Yahr’s observations. Friedersdorf responded by asking how many Black people are actually trying to break into the country music scene and wanting to know if there were numbers to back up the claims in Yahr’s article. This is certainly an important issue to discuss, and I think it is easy to explain the lack of Black and brown people in a genre that has been exclusive, politically “conservative” and historically white in Nashville.

However, neither author touches on the meaning of the song when Chapman sings it versus Combs. When a queer Black woman sings about wanting to “fly away,” to leave the small town and move to the city to “finally see what it means to be living,” does that not have a very different meaning than when a cis white man sings it? I wonder what Luke Combs fans hear when he sings these lyrics versus the (mostly lesbian) women who heard Chapman singing at festivals in the 1980s.

I also can’t help but think about the recent debacle with Jason Aldean’s music video to the song, “Small Town,” where the small town is glorified and the city is demonized, overrun with violence and looting –obvious racist dog whistles. In Chapman’s song, the city is where they will “belong” and “be someone.” Do the same fans who drool over the idea of small-town life when they hear Aldean’s recording also cheer for the hope that is expressed about moving to the city in Combs’s cover? Of course, the song ends on a sad note, but I would not say it is because of the city; we all know small towns also have bars where useless partners can “stay out late drinking,” seeing more of their friends than their kids. All this said, country music is certainly having its moment in social media spaces: from the popularity of Combs’s cover and Aldean’s blatant racism, to Miranda Lambert being salty with fans taking selfies at her Las Vegas concerts (seriously, how would any of us know about T-Swift’s tour if we weren’t able to see the videos and selfies that the privileged among us have taken at her tour?).

Whatever the cultural politics of Aldean’s “Small Town” or Combs’s “Fast Car” cover might be, one hopes that the recent popularity of the latter song – a true classic – will help new audiences discover the world of women’s music that has been, and remains, the soundtrack to thousands of women’s lives since the 1970s.

Emily Hunt is a lecturer of Music at the University of West Georgia. She earned a Masters in Music from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, a German degree from UWG and is currently completing coursework towards her PhD in History at Georgia State University. She is interested in studying the sound of protest and resistance and looking at gendered soundscapes, with a hope that we can understand more about the past by analyzing what we hear, not just what we see and read. Her current research project explores the history of the Women’s Music Movement, a musical tradition that focuses on the lives, needs, and experiences of women. 


[1] Tracy Chapman was nominated for six and won three Grammys in 1989 after the release of this album: Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. While she has been nominated for other Grammy awards, the only other Grammy she has won since 1989 was Best Rock Song in 1997 for “Give Me One Reason.”

[2] Toni Anderson, editor for Hotwire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture, shared a sampling of her photos from the 1986 festivals. On page 34 of the November 1986 issue, Anderson included a photo of Tracy Chapman playing on the day stage at Michigan, with the description “Heartthrob Tracy Chapman.” Hotwire: The Journal for Women’s Music and Culture (November 1986, page 34). (accessed July 22, 2023)

[3] Ladysipper Catalogue and Resource Guide 1988, page 15, from the Ladyslipper, Inc. Retail Catalogue Digital Collection, Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, Rubenstein Library, Duke University, (accessed July 17, 2023).  

[4] From the “Soapbox” pages of Hotwire: The Journal of Women’s Music and Culture in January 1989, Kathy Tully from Buena Park, California describes the admiration that she and others have for Tracy Chapman, as well as their pleasure at seeing her succeed. Tully goes on to discuss Chapman’s passion for human rights through her participation in the “Human Rights Now” tour with Amnesty International, asking readers to consider donating money to Amnesty International as a way to both support human rights and Tracy Chapman. Hotwire: The Journal for Women’s Music and Culture (January 1989, page 2). (accessed July 22, 2023).

[5] For more information on the 1960s youth movements that centered music and festivals, see The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship, and the 60s by Michael J. Kramer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s by Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2001), San Francisco and the Long Sixties by Sarah Hill (New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, ebook), and Couterculture Kaleidoscope: Music and Cultural Perspectives on Late Sixties San Francisco by Nadya Zimmerman (Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 2008, ebook).

[6] “The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly,” Volume 1, Issue 1, page 1, January 1972. SSC-MS-00819, Box 2 ACC # 2020-S-0011, The Furies Newsletters, Ginny Berson Papers, Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History Repository, Smith College, Northampton, MA

[7] Other popular women musicians who had very brief stints with the Women’s Music Movement include Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls, and k.d. lang. However, none of these women stayed on the WMM circuit too long as they went on to larger labels and bigger audiences and fame.

[8] In one of the Staff “Bathroom” Books, Ladyslipper CEO, Laurie Fuchs, wrote a note to the staff explaining that Gardner had “cancer in her uterus” and no insurance. Gardner’s friend created a fundraiser and Fuchs donated money on behalf of Ladyslipper, but also wanted the staff to spread the news far and wide to help Gardner as much as possible, as she (Gardner) had “done so much for other people in the field of healing” through her music. From the folder “Staff “Bathroom” Books.” Acc 10/0222: Box 68, c. 1, Ladyslipper, Inc. records, 1965-2011 and undated. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[9] Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was one of the largest WMM festivals, attracting as many as 10,000 women during its heyday. The last year that the festival took place was in 2015 after the organizers made comments about excluding transwomen, wanting only “women-born-women” to attend. This upset many of the festival sponsors and attendees, forcing the festival organizers to end the festival after that summer. Unfortunately, some of this sentiment still exists, particularly among the older generation. However, younger musicians and audiences are much more open to anyone who identifies as a woman attending the festivals and events, creating a space that is more accommodating to all women, like the Big Mouth Girl festival.

[10] Connor Friedersdorf, “Why Is Tracy Chapman at the Center of a Country Music Controversy?” The Atlantic, July 23, 2023 (accessed July 23, 2023) and Emily Yahr, “Tracy Chapman, Luke Combs and the Complicated Response to ‘Fast Car’” Washington Post, July 13, 2023 (accessed July 17, 2023).