Tired of Cracker Barrel or Whole Foods? Get a “Fast Car”

Image by Milkos | Canva

As far back as 2012, David Wasserman from the Cook Political Report observed that Republican vs. Democrat presidential voting patterns could be neatly explained by parts of the country with a Cracker Barrel vs. those with a Whole Foods.


It was a simple proxy pointing out the growing polarization in our country’s politics, which has worsened in the intervening years. We buy homes and move our families to avoid associating with Cracker Barrel patrons. We only marry those who would never buy their food at Whole Foods. We hate our own family members when they disagree with our politics.


Fundraising-driven political parties, for-profit cable news channels, and power-starved talk show pundits are all trying to divide us. Make us feel vulnerable and cheated. Sort us into those hungry Cracker Barrel and Whole Foods camps.


Wrong. It’s all false.


We All Start Somewhere

Perhaps your family is more like mine. Some prefer Cracker Barrel and some Whole Foods. Food choices don’t define us, though, and neither do two political parties. When it comes to our family and those we associate with, music, not chain food, contains the nuance and subtlety we need to help bring definition to our lives. And we all love the song “Fast Car.”


Do you remember that song?


You got a fast car

I got a plan to get us outta here

I been working at the convenience store

Managed to save just a little bit of money

Won’t have to drive too far

Just ‘cross the border and into the city

You and I can both get jobs

And finally see what it means to be living


In 1988, Tracy Chapman, who wrote and recorded that song, released it to the world. With its relatable lyrics and hypnotic guitar chords, it was a hit. It seemed to easily convey what it might have felt like to the young, poor, urban black girl that many of us felt we were learning about while listening to that song. The alcoholism, the betrayal, the desperation, the sense of family and duty, and the wanting to get out, seeing only one way and chance to make that happen.


Music Helps Us Understand Others’ Backgrounds

Despite my rural upbringing and later suburban lifestyle, “Fast Car” lyrics have always resonated with me. And today, 30+ years later, with a wife, three children, and an executive-level corporate job, I still seem to understand every word of that song.


We all have shared experiences and life issues that just can’t be denied. Song lyrics have a way of helping us tap into those experiences. We get lost in the story and see ourselves in the struggle. Lyrics from our favorite songs of any genre tell the stories we love and relate to every day. The human conditions we all face: love, betrayal, drug addiction, hard times, lost jobs, struggle, depression, tragedy, loneliness. We can all relate.


Crossing Over on Occasion Can Feel Strangely Comfortable

That’s why earlier this year (2023), when I heard country star Luke Comb’s most recent album contained a cover of the song “Fast Car,” I wasn’t surprised. Luke’s version quickly crossed from the country charts to popular music and hit number 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100.


When you hear Luke take on those familiar lyrics, you immediately believe him.


See, my old man’s got a problem

He live with the bottle, that’s the way it is

He says his body’s too old for working

His body’s too young to look like his

My mama went off and left him

She wanted more from life than he could give

I said somebody’s got to take care of him

So I quit school and that’s what I did


You don’t have to be a sociologist to see that Luke Comb’s North Carolina upbringing and Nashville lifestyle were a world away from what Tracy Chapman experienced when she wrote those lyrics years ago. And yet, they sound as authentic and genuine in Luke’s Southern drawl as they do in Tracy’s crisp north inland dialect.


Only Parties and Politicians Benefit from Polarization

As Americans, we have many shared experiences that transcend race, gender, rearing, and every other demographic stereotype political parties use to sort us. We all know why they do this; no person is monolithic enough to fit neatly into one party. Therefore, they need people to hate the other party even more than they like their own. It’s a convenient way of getting us to look past the shortcomings of both parties and politicians who struggle to live up to the morals they espouse and find real solutions to difficult social problems. It’s all a big misdirection magic trick.


Unfortunately, this binary sorting is destroying our democracy at a time when the world is changing dramatically, and we can least afford to fall apart. These changing global power dynamics are bringing new and much larger threats to our country than we’ve seen in the past. Losing our democracy at this point in world history may prove fatal to all of us. At a minimum, it’s likely to give a huge boost to authoritarian regimes and push the world further down a dangerous path where freedom is a term from the past and becomes something people used to experience. A huge, failed experiment.


Music Changes Our State of Mind

Using music to intentionally expand our view, improve our emotional state, and unify us is a proven and effective strategy. Just ask Francis Scott Key, any military drum corps or the 30,000+ people at Taylor Swift’s concerts every night. I often believe we all need reminding on occasion that we’re not so different. That we are all unified in a common purpose and vision. Music works for me to do precisely that. Perhaps it will work for you as well.


When political divides stir your outrage, take a moment to listen to a song you love that is written and sung by someone with a completely different life experience than yours. Hopefully, it will elicit compassion and understanding and thwart your urge to engage in divisive discourse. Music we love has an uncanny ability to help us find common ground amid conflict.


Songs can take us mentally to some terrific places. When we choose the right ones, we can often find our humanity again.


Since I’m recommending that music is an answer, you can rightly call me naïve. I’ll own that. Call me a dreamer.


Let me just offer one last acknowledgement to how complex we are and how unrealistic it is to sort us neatly into defined red or blue groups.


My favorite version of Fast Car was released by Jonas Blue in 2015 as a dance version of the song. Blue’s version is nothing like Luke’s nor Tracy’s, and the song still has great appeal and authenticity. Give it a listen; maybe you’ll like it too. And feel free to drive right past Cracker Barrel and Whole Foods while you listen to it. Maybe your car will be fast enough to get you ‘outta there’ before you get sucked in.


You got a fast car

Is it fast enough so we can fly away?

We gotta make a decision

Leave tonight or live and die this way



Born and raised in Idaho, Jace Johnson has lived and worked in the Washington, DC area for over 25 years. He currently loves working at Adobe where he is Vice President Global Policy, Accessibility and Ethical Innovation. For the last 2½ years he has also taught a Lobbying and Global Corporate Government Relations class at Howard University as an Adjunct Lecturer. Years ago, Jace was Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch. The views expressed by Jace are his and not to be ascribed to his employer, family or friends.


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