Tracy Chapman becomes first Black songwriter to win Song of the Year in CMA Awards’ 56-year history

Reclusive singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman wasn’t present at the 57th annual Country Music Association Awards Wednesday. However, she was still one of the big stars of the night, when her signature song, “Fast Car” — which became a breakout hit for Luke Combs this past summer — won Song and Single of the Year, 35 whole years after she first recorded and released her version.

Single of the Year was the first announced category of Wednesday’s CMAs ceremony, and Chapman was of course the first person Combs mentioned in his heartfelt acceptance speech. “I want to thank Tracy Chapman for writing one of the greatest songs of all time,” he gushed. “I just recorded it because I love this song so much. It’s meant so much to me throughout my entire life. It’s the first favorite song that I ever had, since I was 4 years old.”

Only minutes passed before Combs was back at the podium to accept the Song of the Year award, which goes to songwriters. The audience erupted in cheers and a standing ovation when Chapman’s name was announced by country legend Bill Anderson, at which point Anderson’s co-presenter Sara Evans read Chapman’s brief acceptance speech.

“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. Wow. Thank you to the CMAs, and a special thanks to Luke and to all of the fans of ‘Fast Car,’” the absent Chapman’s statement read.

Combs’s “Fast Car” remake was a massive crossover hit in 2023, receiving airplay not just at country radio but on top 40 and adult-contemporary stations — thus introducing Chapman, who has not released any new music herself since 2008, to a whole new audience (and earning her an estimated $500,000 in royalties, according to Billboard). When Combs’s version topped Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, Chapman became the first Black woman to ever score a country No. 1 hit with a solo composition. With her CMA victory, she made history again as the first Black songwriter, of any gender, to win Song of the Year since the CMA Awards debuted 56 years ago.

Other standout moments of the 2023 CMAs ceremony included a fire-and-brimstone opening number of “Need a Favor” by Best New Artist winner Jelly Roll and surprise performer Wynonna Judd; an all-star tribute to the Jimmy Buffett with Kenny Chesney, Mac McAnally, Alan Jackson, the Zac Brown Band, and Buffett’s own Coral Reefer Band; long-overdue recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Tanya Tucker doing “Delta Dawn” with Little Big Town; Hardy, Morgan Wallen, and Post Malone paying tribute to the late Joe Diffie; emotional duets by Carly Pearce with Chris Stapleton, Old Dominion with Megan Moroney, and married duo the War and Treaty; and nine-time nominee Lainey Wilson, aka the “bell bottom girl,” singing “Wildflowers and Wild Horses.” Jelly Roll returned to the stage at the end of the night to sing a Judds song, “Love Can Build a Bridge,” with R&B star K. Michelle.

The 57th annual Country Music Association Awards ceremony took place Nov. 8 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and was hosted by Luke Bryan and Peyton Manning (because, as they joked, “Travis and Taylor weren’t available”). The night’s big winner was Wilson, who took home honors for Entertainer, Album, Female Vocalist, Musical Event, and Music Video of the Year. For a full list of CMAs winners, click here.

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