Country music and the NFL have long enjoyed a cozy relationship — from Hank Williams Jr., Carrie Underwood and Faith Hill serving as longtime NFL theme performers to Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw reaching No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. But when it comes to the Super Bowl, the alliance ends before the coin toss.
Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, Underwood and Luke Bryan have all sung the National Anthem at the most watched television event of the year in the U.S., but since 1994 no halftime show has exclusively featured country acts. That year, Travis Tritt, Tanya Tucker, Clint Black and The Judds — and a cavalcade of line dancers — performed from Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in a revue named “Rockin’ Country Sunday.”
Furthermore, aside from Shania Twain — who was a full-fledged pop crossover act by the time she shared the stage with No Doubt and Sting in 2003 in San Diego — no country act has performed during halftime in a quarter of a century.
The blackout continues with Sunday’s game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, when Tim McGraw will debut his new single, “Thought About You,” during Super Bowl Llll’s pre-game festivities, but Maroon 5 and guests Travis Scott and Big Boi will play the halftime spectacular.
“This could be the biggest performance of an artist’s life as far as reaching a huge audience in one fell swoop,” says veteran Nashville label executive John Zarling. “It’s a shame that for nearly three decades now, there’s not been one single artist in the country format [other than Twain] that had the opportunity to be part of that moment.”
And what a moment it is. Though halftime performers don’t get paid for their 12 minutes of glory, they often score a monumental gain in sales and streaming. Following her 2017 halftime show, Lady Gaga saw a whopping 1,000 percent increase in her digital album and song sales, according to Nielsen. Other performers use their appearance as a platform to introduce new material or, as Madonna did in 2012, immediately afterward announce a world tour.
The NFL declined to comment, but a music industry executive who has consulted with the league believes “the NFL hasn’t booked a country act recently because they don’t think country plays internationally.”
The Super Bowl’s international audience is significant. An estimated 160 million viewers worldwide watched the 2017 game, according to IBC.com, accounting for almost 50 million viewers outside the U.S. (111.3 million people watched domestically, according to Nielsen).
While country’s profile is rising internationally thanks to increased touring outside the U.S. and events like C2C Festival, which brings country headliners to London, Glasgow and Dublin (and expands to Berlin and Amsterdam this year), country artists generally do not have the global following of their pop, rock and hip-hop counterparts.
Nashville-based Paradigm Talent Agency agent Mike Betterton understands that someone like 2014 headliner Bruno Mars may keep more international fans tuned in during halftime, but he also believes the global audience might appreciate some country music as well.
“If you figure that football is America’s game and country music is America’s music, you would think the two go hand-in-hand,” Betterton says. “The rest of the world has a certain fascination with America and might want to know what’s going on.”
There is no dearth of country artists who fill football stadiums during the off-season who would seem like natural fits — including Brooks, Bryan, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney and Florida Georgia Line.
“We had pursued [the halftime show] for Kenny several years ago and that’s when [the NFL] went on their classic rock [spree],” says Betterton. “That’s when Tom Petty, the Who and Springsteen started coming around [in the late ’00s]. I think we got the message that it wasn’t going to happen. I think we just got tired of pursuing it. At the time, it mattered to Kenny and I think after a while it matters less and less. Sometimes you just get tired of pushing a rope.”
Similarly, manager Clarence Spalding says none of his acts, including Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts or Aldean, have ever been asked, despite putting their names forward. “We’ve gone through our agents every year to no avail,” he says. “It’s not as though they don’t know who Jason Aldean is or they didn’t know who Rascal Flatts were or who Brooks & Dunn were back in the day.”
The answer from the NFL is always that they’re going in a “different direction,” Spalding says. “When you’re telling me it’s U2, it’s Gaga, Paul McCartney, I totally get that. Then there are some years when I scratch my head.”
Spalding concedes the international theory up to a point: “That could be viable with certain artists, but I don’t think it holds with Garth or Carrie, especially,” he says. “They’re two big country acts who have made a true effort to tour the world.”
“It’s one of those bookings that’s very, very difficult to pitch for because there are so many layers and so many people and you never completely clear on what is going to push that particular act over the edge,” Zarling says, adding that in addition to the NFL, the halftime sponsor (which for the last several years has been Pepsi) and the network airing the game both weigh in on the selection.
The controversy surrounding this year’s halftime show may end up with country artists moving up the list when it comes to selecting acts in coming years. Maroon 5 signed on to play after a number of acts, reportedly including Rihanna and P!nk, turned down the gig as a show of support for Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who kneeled during the National Anthem before games to protest police shootings of unarmed black men. As Maroon 5 looked for acts to join them, the halftime show became a third rail, especially for artists of color who support Kaepernick.
Most country artists tend to keep their political views private, while country music tends to draw a more conservative audience — many of whom support the NFL in the Kaepernick controversy — than other musical genres.
For those artists who do reach that halftime pinnacle, it can be glorious, says Tucker, who performed her sassy 1993 country smash, “It’s A Little Too Late,” and joined The Judds for a moving finale of their anthemic “Love Can Build a Bridge” for the 1994 halftime. “It was high pressure, but I thought it was a really cool opportunity to have the kind of exposure that I might not normally have gotten,” she says. “I’m ready to do it again!”
In the meantime, like a lot of country acts, Chesney, who sat with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft during the 2017 Super Bowl, is content to watch from the sidelines. “Kenny’s got a ton of ties with the NFL, with teams, with owners and with players. If our card gets picked one day, great. If it doesn’t, then that’s fine too,” Betterton says. “At the end of the day, they’re going to do what serves the NFL best and I respect that.”