Eric Church would normally have turned down the NFL when the league reached out to see if he was interested in singing the national anthem at this year's Super Bowl.
However, the riot at the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters on Jan. 6 changed the country music star's traditional stance about performing the national anthem, so this time he said yes.
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Church will be performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a duet with soul singer Jazmine Sullivan at Super Bowl 55 on Sunday.
"With what’s going on in America, it feels like an important time for a patriotic moment,” Church told the Los Angeles Times. "An important time for unity. The fact that I’m a Caucasian country singer and she’s an African American R&B singer — I think the country needs that."
Church, 43, said he had "avoided it forever" because the national anthem is "an incredibly hard song to sing."
"Honestly, there’s just more to lose than to gain," he said.
He and Sullivan, 33, have never performed together. The two will perform only the second national anthem duet in Super Bowl history, following in the footsteps of Aretha Franklin and Aaron Neville in 2006. They also follow on the heels of last year's national anthem singer, Demi Lovato.
The two singers are rehearsing their duet this week in Tampa, Florida, ahead of the big game at Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will take on the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
"I know I want to play guitar," Church said. "And we’re keeping it based around the melody. Basically, if I can stay out of her way, we’re golden."
Church appreciates the symbolism of the duet in a country that remains bitterly divided along political lines.
"But that’s kind of what spoke to me," he said. "We’re unifying. And it’s a time in our country when we have to do that."
He also cited the ongoing pandemic as a reason for increased isolation among Americans.
"I feel like in this country, we’ve given up the common ground," he said. "When I’m at a concert, I’m not thinking about how many people there are Republicans or Democrats. But that’s how you win elections — you have to create the division, to rile up a base.
"And because of COVID, we’ve lost the things that used to unite us: concerts, sporting events, trips to Vegas with the boys. I can tell you from the concert standpoint, the longer we go without people being able to put their arms around the person next to them and have a moment of communion, it gets more tenuous and more dangerous. And I think the reality of that is what happened at the Capitol."
The mass COVID-19 vaccination effort underway across the country has given Church hope that better times are ahead.
"The vaccine is kind of what it was for me — not just the vaccine but the implementation," he said. "I watch the daily count obsessively, and nothing’s gonna happen until we get it in arms. But now we’re starting to see a plan going forward that looks effective, looks like it’s gonna work. And that of course was a little bit because of the change (of presidents).
"Somebody asked me if I’d take the vaccine. I said I’d take it in the eyeball to go strap on a guitar."
Church's duet with Sullivan also comes 30 years after the iconic rendition of the national anthem by Whitney Houston in the same city. The late legend sang it ahead of Super Bowl XXV between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills at Tampa Stadium in 1991.
Other musical highlights on Sunday include singer-songwriter H.E.R. performing "America the Beautiful," and R&B superstar the Weeknd headlining the halftime show.