Once upon a time, the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs stood out like iconic beacons reaching toward the sky, alone and adorned with understated grandiosity. Now they are dwarfed by suites, luxury levels, and light banks which make them less discernable, especially to out-of-towners expecting them to stand out with the obvious lure of, say, Wrigley Field's ivy walls or St. Louis' Gateway Arch overlooking Busch Stadium.
Well, this trademark image of the world's most famous racetrack isn't the only thing that has changed over the years with all things Derby. As society now seems accustomed to saying, back in the day, The Derby Eve Jam, was the hottest ticket in town.
First held in 1971, it featured Canned Heat as the main act at Louisville Downs, the old harness racing track on Poplar Level Road. By 1975, the event had gotten bigger and parts of the show were televised nationally in as part of ABC's Kentucky Derby coverage. Freedom Hall became home to the Derby Eve Jam and played host to shows like 1980's Journey and The Babys concert. From 1971-1997, acts included Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hall and Oates, Foreigner, and Charlie Daniels Band.
After the 1997 show, the Derby Eve Jam dropped off the Derby Festival schedule because there were fewer major groups touring during the late spring - that is what officials have claimed. After a hiatus of over a decade, the Derby Eve Jam resumed in 2008 with the B-52s, which is always a good choice of acts to, as the kids say, get the party started. Last year's show featured Everclear, Gavin DeGraw, and honeyhoney.
This year's installment happens Friday on the Great Lawn stage at Kroger's Fest-a-Ville on the Waterfront when Tennessee singer-songwriter Rodney Atkins takes the stage. Fellow country singer Candy Coburn (and Kentucky native) opens the show at 8 P.M. Admission to the show, which is sponsored by Kentucky Proud, is a 2010 Pegasus Pin. Contributing sponsors of the event are New Country Q103.1 and Country Legends 103.9.
If you're a country music fan, you are no doubt familiar with Atkins, who has had five #1 singles on the Billboard country music charts, including It's America (with unpretentious lyrics like "It's a high school prom, it's a Springsteen song, It's a ride in a Chevrolet") and Watching You, which was also named the number one country song of the year by Billboard in 2007. Watching You is a sincere song about the relationship between a father and his young son. It's poignant in a classic country sense, and it's even more powerful knowing Atkins' background. He was adopted as a sickly infant from the Holston Methodist Home for Children in Greenville, Tennessee, by two families ... who both returned him. Allan and Margaret Atkins did not.
Don't expect Atkins to delve into sad material, though. His music is capable of getting the crowd singing along and having fun while - like the best country artists do - occasionally pulling the heartstrings along the way. And don't expect him to stray into alt country territory anytime soon; he's unabashedly country - but in a good way. Would he have a song called Friends With Tractors if he weren't? He's got little glitz but a whole lot of homespun storytelling. And from his recent success and Louisville's proven attendance at big name country shows, it should be packed along the river on Friday. Opener Candy Coburn is best known for her recent breast cancer awareness anthem Pink Warrior, and 100% of the artist and producer proceeds from sales of the song are donated to Susan G. Komen For the Cure charity.
So country music fans will not have to wait until the State Fair to get their fill of quality country music. Oh, and if they get their fill of Miller Lites or another adult beverages, the Miller Lite Free Rides program is offering free bus and trolley rides Friday evening. They will run every 10 minutes until midnight on the Main-Market route, just south of Waterfront Park. So the Derby Eve Jam may be outside these days, but its tradition lives on in both good music and inebriated revelers.