Churchill Downs: Taking a Gamble on a Song

by ekramer on May 1, 2009

The Kentucky Derby has invited LeAnn Rimes to sing the national anthem, marking the first time it’s had a national recording artist sing the song at the event. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports on why the Derby had begun what it is calling “a new tradition” and what it means.

Singing “The Star Spangled Banner” is old hat for LeAnn Rimes. By the time she was 10, Rimes was singing the song at Dallas Cowboys football games. But it was a rendition during a Texas Rangers baseball game that caught the attention of songwriter Bill Mack, who chose her to record “Blue,” a song that became Rimes’ breakthrough hit.

Rimes still performs the national anthem before games, such as one performance before the 2006 Rose Bowl.

Rimes and other artists could be singing these gigs out of patriotism, but — of course — it’s also for the exposure via television viewers. And Rimes performance at the Kentucky Derby is intended to expose a widespread audience to horse racing, says Julie Koenig, the vice president of the entertainment business unit at Churchill Downs Incorporated.

“We’ve got a lot of individuals that are watching the Derby telecast,” Koenig says. “We’ve got very strong rating at the time that we’re getting close to race time.”

The highest number of viewers who’ve tuned in to watch the Derby is near 15 million, and Rimes’ performance could push that higher.

This year, the company is also working other angles to cultivate new racing fans. It’s featuring more celebrities at the track and working with NBC, which airs the Derby, and Bravo, which NBC owns, to cover fashion and food associated with the race. The moves come as sponsorships and tickets sales have fallen off.

Still, messing with the national anthem isn’t always a safe bet, according to Ken Levine. He’s a television writer who now has a post-game show covering the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his 20 years as a major league baseball announcer, he’s heard his share of interpretations. And he’s formed some strong opinions about how the national anthem should be sung.

“The truth of the matter is this is not a blues song,” Levine says. “This is not song that needs, you know, a hook, or a personal signature. It’s not the Grand Ol’ Opery. It’s not opera. It’s the national anthem.”

Levine lampooned those showy performances in an episode he co-wrote of “The Simpsons.” The singer was Bleeding Gums Murphy.

The episode aired in 1990, months before the Super Bowl when Whitney Houston sang “The Star Spangled Banner” as the Persian Gulf War was drawing down. Levine says the anthem can take on different political meanings in different times.

Sometimes performances are blatantly patriotic. At other times, they’ve been about showing that patriotism comes in different forms. Many historians say the first non-traditional performance was before a World Series game in 1968, when the Puerto Rican artist Jose Feliciano sang a slow and bluesy version. The next year, Jimi Hendrix played now infamous variation at Woodstock.

But even today with savvy promoters in on the act, Levine says marketing hasn’t undermined the patriotic meaning. And Rimes decades of experience singing it might make Saturday’s rendition acceptable to Levine.

The only unacceptable move at the Derby — says Churchill Downs’ Julie Koenig — would be having someone sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“”‘My Old Kentucky Home’ is something that belongs to the audience,” Koenig says. “It belongs to the state of Kentucky; it belongs to Derby fans everywhere whether they’re here in Louisville or watching and singing at home.”

Churchill Downs learned that lesson in 1996 when actress Dixie Carter sang the song. It caused many Derby fans say it spoiled the event. Koenig says they won’t do that again.

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