Ever since country music icon Lee Greenwood began his career 35 some years ago, he has united this country more than just about anybody else, politicians included, with one song — “God Bless the U.S.A.”
What a song! It was in the Top 5 music charts three times (1991, 2001 and 2003) the only song in any genre to do that.
It not only became a second National Anthem, it brought Americans together on their darkest days, lifted the spirits of military men and women serving on foreign soil and it continues to illustrate what it means to be a proud American. The song also has opened Greenwood to many opportunities to travel the world and serve his country in a unique way, bridging political differences, and doing more for veterans than just performing for them.
However, there is so much more to the unassuming artist’s career than the one song. Sure the song helped to define him, but he has proven time and again there are many layers to the man and his music.
His distinctive voice and creative songwriting skills have allowed Greenwood to create a stage show that has weathered the ups and downs of the musical landscape. And his love of a variety of musical styles hasn’t hurt his cultivation of a wide fan base. He can deliver jazz, R&B and country with equal ease, and those who know him beyond his “God Bless...” anthem, are well aware of that.
Greenwood not only knows his way around ballads and inspirational songs, he knows his way around a casino. He got his start playing, and dealing cards, in the casinos of the “biggest little city in the world,” Reno, Nevada.
After gaining confidence singing the lounges, he decided to head to where the music action was — Nashville. Once there, he began turning out the hits and, within two years was named the Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year and won the 1983 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance Male for his song “I.O.U.”
In 1984, he released “God Bless the U.S.A.” which did fine. But it really hit the roof during the Gulf War of 1990-91, receiving many industry awards, including Music City News’ Award for “Song of the Year” and CMA “Song of the Year” songwriting honors.
His career includes 32-charted singles, two platinum albums and four gold albums among the 22 studio albums he’s recorded altogether, including two Christmas albums. His hits include “Somebody’s Gonna Love You,” “It Turns Me Inside Out,” “Ring On Her Finger Time on Her Hand,” “Going, Going, Gone,” “Dixie Road,” “I Don’t Mind the Thorns (If You’re the Rose),” “Don’t Underestimate My Love For You,” “Hearts Aren’t Made to Break,” “Mornin’ Ride,” and more.
Also known for his stand-out patriotism and support of the U.S. military, Greenwood has received the Congressional Medal of Honor, Society’s National Patriot’s Award and he’s entertained troops during more than 30 USO tours.
Because of the one song, audiences tend to think Greenwood shows are patriotic in nature.
“Actually, my shows are not patriotic in nature, only the end,” he said. “I don’t focus on that. I have a country music career of 35 years and I dwell on the fact that I’m an artist and entertainer and if I didn’t have ‘God Bless the U.S.A.,’ I would be just that.”
Greenwood is thrown into the spotlight for patriotism because of the one song that he wrote.
“Now, I embrace that we released the American Patriot album while I was at Liberty Records, which tended to be after 9/11 and it was the one CD that outsold all my rest,” he said. “But saying that, when we came to Nashville it was like anybody else. We became the hit-maker for 15 years and then we settled back into performing which is what I cut my teeth on.”
Greenwood began performing at the age of 14 in California.
“It’s something that I like doing, I like the lounges like in Laughlin,” he said. “They seem like main rooms but compared to Vegas, they’re more like a lounge environment and I love that — it’s just an intimate kind of relationship between me and the audience that I love.”
Greenwood’s career has been a journey from lounges, to arenas and back again — and he’s fine with all of it.
“There’s a metamorphosis that takes place. When you first get started, you have direct communication with the people in front of you because the audience is very small,” he said. “Then when you get a larger audience, you learn to deal with more than 100 people. Then it’s 500 and 1,000.
“When you become a celebrity, and you’re on stages say for 160,000 people or like the Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, that seats 106,000 for football games, there’s not much time to talk. Your conversation will pretty much be lost. So then you have enough hits to just sing the hits and that’s what they want to hear.”
Fans don’t want to see entertainers just sitting on a stool playing a guitar, Greenwood said.
“It would be a crying shame if I came on stage and didn’t sing a number of the 17 No. 1 songs that I had. That’s how people became fans,” he said. “From every one of those songs I gained more fans. But we just happen to have the closer of all time.”
While Greenwood doesn’t let “God Bless the U.S.A.” define him, he reserves a special place in the show for the iconic song.
“When I get to that point in our show, it is a high point. And it is something I enjoy doing…uniting America…and I’ve done that now since the release of ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ which was in 1984,” he said. “I’ve been given the opportunity to be a uniter, to be an American who people look up to as a role model.”
During a time when the country seems so divided, Greenwood uses the power of music to remind people what it means to be American.
“We’ve always been divided. Talk about the Civil War, and Vietnam, the worst,” he said. “But it’s interesting if you’re successful in war — we’re very barbaric — it breeds a happy time. Yeah, we won…and then the nation sort of becomes one for a while. After 2001 and the attacks here in America on our shore, we were one country for a while. But people have different lives and different meanings for being an American, and I get that. It’s just my job to try to smooth the water.”
So where did “God Bless the U.S.A.” come from?
“I had this patriotic feeling since I was a kid watching the flag fly,” said Greenwood, who was a child during the Vietnam era. “Later, when I left Vegas after almost 19 years, I actually was going to do ‘The Trilogy’ as a closer for my show because I knew Elvis — we were performing in the same hotel several times — and I thought, ‘what a great closer. I’ve gotta do this.’ Then when I started touring as an act, I re-thought things, ‘why would I do someone else’s song? Why don’t I just write my own?’ So that’s what inspired ‘God Bless the USA.’ I had no idea that it would become America’s song, instead of just my hit.”
One item people may not know about Greenwood, he’s quite the saxophone player.
“I’m still a horn player and I’ve played horns since I was 13,” he said.
So does that mean he’ll ante up for his Laughlin shows?
“Yeah, I bring my saxophone to the show. And I think the audience thinks ‘he’s recorded that..,’” he said. “But I actually take the time to play something without the band just to let them know I really do play and that is my favorite instrument and I am versed on it, and piano as well.”