Luke Bryan is usually circumspect about siding with one team when it comes to the Super Bowl, considering the gesture is practically as hazardous for a country singer as endorsing a political candidate. But for Super Bowl LI, the Georgia native has no such qualms.
"Every year, a lot of people want to ask me, 'Who are you pulling for?'" he says. "I would always dodge the question and try to stay pretty neutral because I would have fans in both markets. But I gotta step out there and say I'm pulling for my [Atlanta] Falcons this year."
He should have an enviable view of the action when his Falcons take the field at Houston's NRG Stadium against the New England Patriots on Sunday, February 5th, as he'll be opening the annual spectacle with a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Later in the evening, Lady Gaga will headline the halftime show. Speaking with Rolling Stone, Bryan noted he has been thinking about some different ways the familiar song can be delivered and making sure it's firmly embedded in his memory through lots of practice.
"I've kind of just been hanging around the house, singing," he says. "Singing in the stairwell, singing in the shower, singing for my boys. I just tried to get a lot of – I know it sounds like a sports reference – but get a lot of reps in."
Bryan, who's scored hits in the last year with Kill the Lights tracks "Home Alone Tonight," "Huntin', Fishin' and Lovin' Every Day" and "Move," plans to go the simple route and sing his version without accompaniment. His main mission beyond enjoying the moment, he notes, is to "just really really do a great job singing the anthem and try to honor the country as best I can, and honor our veterans."
Since Bryan's ascent to the top of country's ranks, he's had the opportunity to bring his tours to fans in several football and baseball stadiums. But the Super Bowl, drawing the largest television audience in any year, is a slightly different animal. It's a daunting challenge, but Bryan refuses to let his nerves get the best of him.
"You have to not think about what's going on outside of the stadium," he says. "It's almost like, [you] do an unbelievable job for the people in the stadium and then it'll turn into that. It's only a little over two minutes long. Get up there and do what I've always loved to do: sing for people. And try to take it at that – don't overthink it."
For some performers such as Whitney Houston and Jennifer Hudson, singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl has been tied closely to their legacy and elevated them to new heights. Bryan doesn't really see his upcoming appearance the same way, beyond hoping to surprise some people who aren't familiar with his work.
"I'm not really thinking about it in what it can do for my career," he says. "I just hope that when I walk off that stage, people go, 'Man, he really did a great job capturing the anthem,' and 'He really surprised us.' I hope people go, 'Wow, we didn’t really think he had that in him.'"
Back in 2012, Bryan caught some flack after singing the National Anthem at the MLB All-Star game. Fans noticed that he glanced at his hand during the performance, as if he'd needed a cheat sheet for the lyrics. He later apologized and today thinks of it a learning experience about what people expect to see. He vows not to make the same mistake on Sunday.
"I had just written down 'streaming' and 'gleaming' because for some reason during rehearsals I kept jumbling those up," he recalls. "Then I started psyching myself out on it. I thought I did a great job on the Anthem, but the unfortunate thing was people saw me checking those two words. I learned from it, and you know, I'm just gonna walk out there and sing it and go from there."
And as soon as that two-minute performance wraps up, Bryan can relax and focus on pulling for the Falcons.
"I'm probably gonna drink a beer really, really fast," he says, laughing, "and start enjoying football."