The Super Bowl Halftime Show is one of the most viewed televised concerts each year. To further the big game’s global audience, the halftime show’s sponsors normally book surefire draws. Typically, they turn to pop megastars (Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry) and rock legends (The Who, Paul McCartney).
When the Super Bowl first came to Atlanta in 1994, the music of the South and the victorious Dallas Cowboys’ home state rode a wave of popularity. Georgia-born Travis Tritt enjoyed the respect and fame needed for such a high-profile local gig. He joined Clint Black, Tanya Tucker and Wynonna, who pulled double-duty because of a surprise Judds reunion, for the Rockin’ Country Sunday halftime show.
Black started the festivities with “Tuckered Out,” a cut off his hit album No Time to Kill. Tucker followed up with a rocking rendition of “It’s a Little Too Late,” which led into Tritt’s equally high-octane take on “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.” Wynonna’s best pop-accessible cut “No One Else On Earth” dovetailed into a memorable Judds reunion. The mother and daughter duo sang a moving rendition of “Love Can Build a Bridge.” Wynonna and Naomi Judd were joined by song’s end by a bevy of special guests, including Stevie Wonder, Charlie Daniels, the Georgia Satellites and, for no apparent reason, Joe Namath and Elijah Wood.
Part of what makes this show seem so impressive nearly 25 years later is the timing. A year prior, Michael Jackson changed the Super Bowl halftime show forever when his performance positively impacted television ratings. Before 1993, most halftime shows featured marching bands and skits. Recording artists sometimes appeared as special guests, not the main attraction. For example, the first country star to appear during the halftime show was Doug Kershaw. The Cajun fiddler performed during 1990’s slightly unsettling 40th birthday party for the Peanuts gang, hosted during Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans.
The fact that Black, a genuine celebrity with a famous bride, and the others got the gig right after the King of Pop spoke volumes about country music’s early ’90’s popularity.
Such fads as line dancing helped legitimize the show, but these artists were hardly flashes in the pan. Tucker proved her talent at an extremely young age in the 1970’s. Despite being in her 30’s, she was a 20-year veteran of country music by 1994. Wynonna earned her spot with the Judds, an act legendary enough to warrant a reunion on such a grand stage. Black and Tritt built followings off the demand for traditional country. Both stars filled the still-fresh boot-prints of Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs and other like-minded performers.
The widespread popularity of “hat acts” and two-steps eventually waned. Since 1994, only Shania Twain graced the halftime show stage with her 2003 appearance. She was the only country star appearing that year, with the rest of the lineup featuring Sting and No Doubt.
As Tritt observed on Twitter, a Super Bowl showcase of seasoned country music stars feels like a pipe dream now. Nowadays, YouTube sensations and pop stars are more likely to get the nod than road-tested country singers. Even if someone like Chris Stapleton appears in the coming years, it won’t be the same as having four country music acts as co-headliners on a global stage.