One of the highlights of Sunday's highlight-filled Grammy Awards was a duet between the great Tracy Chapman and young country music star Luke Combs, whose 2023 cover of her 1988 hit "Fast Car" hit No. 2 on the Billboard chart.
And 36 years after that song brought Chapman to great fame and Grammy Awards of her own for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, longtime fans and those who are just newly learning of her existence were left wondering where she's been in recent decades — impressed, obviously, by how great she still sounds onstage, after not touring since 2009.
Chapman started out as a busker in Boston and Cambridge, when she was a student at Tufts. And she was quickly discovered, recording her first album at age 22. Her subsequent albums never hit so big, and she never seemed concerned with writing bangers. By the time her third studio album, "Matters of the Heart," came out in 1992, it was the early grunge era and it was largely ignored — none of its lovely and earnest music ever got much airplay.
Over at the New York Times, SF Bureau Chief Heather Knight thought she'd let people know where Tracy's been, which mostly has been here in SF, where she's lived for many years.
I personally shared a row of seats with her at an ACT performance of Benjamin Scheuer's moving one-man musical piece The Lion in 2016. Chapman was sporting her signature dreads, and seemed moved by the show — and I wondered if maybe she was an ACT subscriber, but I haven't seen her since.
Chapman has been known to patronize the arts in the city, and in 2016 she served on a panel of judges for a high school scholarship contest that was sponsored by Beach Blanket Babylon. (She may have judged the contest in multiple years.)
Knight points to an SF bookstore owner who posted a now-deleted tweet on X after the Grammy performance saying that Chapman shops in their store regularly and is "so down to earth." And state Assemblyman Matt Haney says he spotted Chapman once, and only once, in the audience at an SF school board meeting when he was on the school board in years past.
So, yes, Chapman has kept a very low profile here and in the broader music world. Chapman's brand of folk mixed with blues and protest music may have a found a new moment for a new audience, though, and with Spotify and other streaming platforms, a lot of them are probably rediscovering songs like "Talkin' About a Revolution" and "Gimme One Reason" — the latter of which was Chapman's last real radio hit, and it came out in 1995.
Chapman's last studio album was "Our Bright Future" in 2008, the title single from which is embedded below.
She's also made rare, seemingly politically timed appearances on late-night shows, as the Times notes. She appeared at least twice in 2020 performing her 1988 song "Talkin' About a Revolution" — once on the BBC late-night show Later... with Jools Holland, and then a few months later, before the November election, on Seth Meyers.
Chapman earned the distinction last year of becoming the first Black woman sole writer of a song to hit Number 1 on the Billboard country music chart — this was Combs's cover of "Fast Car," which also hit Number 2 on the Hot 100.
Chapman, at 59, still sounded crystal clear and every bit in her prime alongside the 32-year-old Combs on Sunday. And he has succeeded in bringing that song, which was hugely popular with an earlier generation, to a whole new one — who might have been confused about the gendered lyric "I work in the market as a checkout girl," which he chose not to change out of respect for the original.
"It's just such a cool, full-circle moment for me," Combs said in a Grammy-produced clip about his love for "Fast Car." "Just to be associated with her in any way is super humbling for me."
But Chapman has never enjoyed the spotlight, as she said in an interview with the Irish Times in 2015 — so maybe even that standing ovation at the Grammys isn't going to get her out on the road again... though would a slot at Outside Lands or the subsequent extra weekend of shows in August be so out of the question?
"Being in the public eye and under the glare of the spotlight was, and it still is, to some extent, uncomfortable for me, but there are some ways by which everything that has happened in my life has prepared me for this career. But I am a bit shy," Chapman said. "I have this personality that is a bit on the reserved side, and which had never really sought out the limelight. That has made me perhaps not the ideal person for this job."
She also said, regarding her early fame, "Of course, there are moments here and there that I would change. But having that success – even though it was overwhelming at that time, and it would be at any time, I guess – gave me artistic freedom and the chance to keep making music that felt right for me. I’m very grateful for that; there’s no reason why I wouldn’t be."
Top image: Tracy Chapman performs onstage during the 66th GRAMMY Awards on February 04, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)