Last week, Tracy Chapman made country music history by becoming the first Black woman to be the sole songwriter of a Number One country hit when Luke Combs’ cover of her 1988 song “Fast Car” topped the charts.
While celebratory — “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there,” Chapman said — the milestone was also a stark reminder of the historical precarity and lack of opportunities for Black women as songwriters in Nashville: Chapman is just one of a small group of Black women to ever receive a writing credit on a country Number One.
The only other songwriters to co-write country Number Ones include Donna Summer (her “Starting Over Again” was a 1980 hit for Dolly Parton), Alice Randall (“XXX’s and OOO’s by Trisha Yearwood), Ester Dean (Lady A’s “Champagne Night”), and, more recently, Tayla Parx, who earned a 2021 Number One with “Glad You Exist,” a song she co-wrote for Dan+Shay.
Over the last decade, Parx has written songs in a variety of genres for everyone from BTS to Haim — she cowrote Ariana Grande’s monster “Thank U, Next.” In country music, she’s had songs cut by Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae. She’s also a recording artist in her own right, and in 2019, released the song “Fight” featuring Florida Georgia Line. But she’s aware that, compared to pop circles, Nashville is a uniquely insular community, one that many of her peers are trying to change.
“It’s a boys club,” Parx says of writing country music. “But there are a lot of people who are awesome and understand that, and you have lots of artists that speak out on that too. I’ve been working with Mickey Guyton and Brittney Spencer, and all these incredible people and they want to make people know [about the genre’s history]. But it’s not just Black artists, it’s artists of every color who are really trying to make sure they diversify.”
The fact that the number of Black women with writing credits on country chart-toppers can be counted on one hand illustrates how much Nashville has to do to become more welcoming.
Parx remains hurt over a dispute she had while working on another country song in a Nashville writing room. She co-wrote Kelsea Ballerini’s “Overshare” with hit songwriters Josh Osborne and Jesse Frasure in 2019, and quarreled with Frasure over how she’d be credited. Parx wrote the chords to the song and played piano while “Overshare” was being composed, and thus, in addition to her writing credit, she believed she was due a production credit too. She didn’t get one.
“In songwriting, there’s a major difference between producer and songwriter credits, and it’s the money earned, because producers, more than likely, get points, whereas songwriters only get publishing [royalties],” she says. “And so you don’t have a lot of women, and a lot of Black women, especially, owning portions of a master [recording].”
When Parx raised the issue, she remembers Frasure telling her that she was lucky to be invited to write on the song at all. “It really left a taste,” she says. “Every time I think about that story, it just hurts.” (A rep for Frasure declined to comment)
Still, Parx says she’s had collaborations in country music that were both successful and satisfying. She cites her work with LeAnn Rimes and Rimes’ producer Darrell Brown, and raves about her time with Dan+Shay. “It reminds you that Nashville and country music is changing, right? And in a great way. You have people like Darrell Brown and Dan+Shay and Josh Osborne involved in doing what country music has done in general over the past few years — and that’s allow for a wider audience.”
While there’s no reason to believe Combs’ version of “Fast Car” will have any meaningful effect in widening country music’s audience, Parx says she’s not surprised to see the song resonating across genres. To Parx, the reason for the cover’s success is twofold: a surge in older songs becoming popular again, and savvy production targeting specific audiences.
“I’m not saying that Tracy’s version wasn’t country, per se, but Luke’s version is obviously country,” she says. “And unfortunately, Black artists are usually tied into one particular type of thing, and Tracy was one of the earliest artists to break out of that in her heyday. How many Black artists do you see who are really pop stars? Or country stars? It’s [usually] R&B and hip-hop, and they’ve made less money than pop or country.
“So when it comes to these record labels, and when it comes to management, when they decide to put these genres on artists, a lot of the time it has to do with the color of the person,” she continues. “You could take the same song and the genre will change based off their color, which is really sad. And it’s still happening today.”
But Parx vowed to herself to never be bound by genre. She’s made a point in her career of working in musical spaces where Black women — artists and songwriters alike — haven’t always been welcome.
“In my mind, I always wanted to be the most diverse writer, the writer people know 50 years from now as someone who had Number Ones in almost every genre,” she says. “That comes from a desire, as a young Black woman coming into the game, of people always assuming that I didn’t or couldn’t write pop music. So once I did get a Number One in pop, I was like, ‘Well, I want a Number One in country. I want a Number One in gospel. I want a Number One in dance.’ Growing up, I didn’t have anybody to look up at and say, ‘Let me do that.’”