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Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell Turned the Lights Back On Print-ready version

by Kim Ruehl
Washington Post
February 8, 2024

I remember hearing "Fast Car" for the first time. It was 1988, and I was 11 years old, so of course I saw it on MTV. There was a close-up of a beautiful Black woman, short-cropped hair, sad eyes. Behind her, a building was silhouetted against blue sky. There was darkness around the singer, but a fixed light held her face.

The lyrics drew me in. I sort of understood how it felt to "manage to save just a little bit of money," but I definitely had no idea what it meant to ride in my lover's car "across the border and into the city." Or what it might mean to the woman in the song to "buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs."

Nonetheless, Tracy Chapman's voice, the confluence of melody, lyric, rhythm and instrumentation - that dunuh duh duhhh da-duh, duhhh duhhh da-duh intro - gave me a new idea of freedom. The sweet, fleeting kind one finds in the anything-is-possible space between two impossible moments. Chapman's song gave me a glimpse of pain and hope and love in a way I hadn't seen before. A world outside my own. A truth that belonged to someone else and yet rang as true to my 11-year-old self as if it were mine.

In my preadolescent soul, "Fast Car" opened windows in places that had previously appeared to be walls. To hear country star Luke Combs introduce the song on this year's prime-time Grammys telecast, it would seem I'm not alone in that feeling.

Combs enjoyed a huge hit with the song when he included it on his 2023 album "Gettin' Old." His version of the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country chart, causing many who are unfamiliar with his story to wonder what a Southern White guy was doing daring to cover Tracy Chapman. He received a Grammy nomination for best country solo performance, and the show's producers brought Chapman out to sing the song with him.

Combs talked about the way the song hit him as a child, riding in his father's truck. He credited Chapman as a primary inspiration that drew him toward the guitar and songwriting in the first place. As the country star glanced across the stage to his songwriting hero, I could see the sweet catharsis in his face. For her part, Chapman looked the same as in 1988, albeit with much longer braids and a few more grays. But instead of a light fixed on her face, this time it was radiating from her.

Later the same night, I noticed a similar radiance emanating from Joni Mitchell. When her upholstered throne spun to face the audience, there she was: human light. Proof a person can do important things for their whole lives, not just when they're young. Proof a song has a whole life, too.

I don't remember the first time I heard the song Mitchell sang that night, "Both Sides Now." It is as though the song has always existed. It was born about a decade before me, as Mitchell glanced out an airplane window. Mitchell recorded the song twice. The first time, in 1969, she was 26 years old. She delivered it in a straight walking tempo. The choruses soared in her trademark soprano; the guitar was a collection of incidental strums on her acoustic. Thirty-one years later, she revisited it with a full orchestra. The tempo had slowed, her voice had dropped. What originally lifted the song via youthful curiosity, a surrender to life's bigness, now landed like the wisdom of experience. It had been a long flight. Any original lightness seemed now balanced by regret.

("Something's lost but something's gained in living every day," the young singer wrote.)

Now, at 80 years old, here she was again with the song. This side of her recovery from a 2015 brain aneurysm, Mitchell's first performance on the Grammys stage felt infectiously transcendent. In her introduction, Brandi Carlile opined that Mitchell was the first songwriter, as far as she could tell, to turn her "soul inside out."

For starters, according to Mitchell's website, "Both Sides Now" alone has been recorded 1,663 times by artists around the world. It's fair to say that notable artists across the spectrum of musical genres - from celebrated roots artists such as Sarah Jarosz and Ani DiFranco to pop icons Adele and Taylor Swift - owe Mitchell the freedom to fully realize their vulnerability. She cut the path that would allow female songwriters, as she sings in "Both Sides Now," "to say 'I love you' right out loud." To show up as whole, broken, trying, complex, light-bearing women in an often darkly cynical, male-centered industry and world.

Speaking of light, as I watched Chapman and then Mitchell, I was reminded of a visit to the Grand Canyon. Specifically, the morning I rose in the dark and walked out of my tiny cabin to stand on the rim and watch the sun rise.

I had seen photos of the Grand Canyon since I was a child. I had already been there for two days. I knew what I would be looking at, thought I knew what to expect. But when the sun rose over the ancient geologic chasm, I felt as though a ray of light was being zapped directly to my soul, through all seven holes on my head. The thickness of joy and hope. The enveloping warmth. The sense that to be alive in this moment, to witness this event, is a rare and precious gift. The sudden understanding that life is an opportunity. The tears were near my nostrils before I felt them.

I felt these things again as I watched Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell sing their songs. At its best, a song can remind us there is light on offer every day. After the past few years of world events, it still feels as though we are emerging from our tiny cabins. We are pretty sure we know what to expect. But then the light comes - just like that. With it come the tears. We didn't know how much we needed them.

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Added to Library on February 8, 2024. (472)

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