Uniting the Nation

It’s hard to believe Lee Greenwood just celebrated his 75th birthday. Where does the time go? Ever since the unassuming country music icon began his career 35 some years ago, he has probably united this country more than just about anybody else, politicians included, with one song — “God Bless the U.S.A.”
Oh, but 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 has 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 up to many opportunities to travel the world, as well as 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 Greenwood’s career than just the one song. His distinctive voice and creative songwriting skills have allowed Lee Greenwood to create a stage show that has weathered the ups and downs of the musical landscape. 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 improvisational 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.
In addition to his touring schedule, Greenwood also was part of the “Deep From the Heart” hurricane relief concert, hosted by all five living former presidents. 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.
We caught up with Greenwood via a phone interview last week. Here’s his take…

Recent projects…
Greenwood: My wife, Kim, and I just got back from College Station, Texas. We were there with the five presidents for the hurricane relief. That was an interesting event. I emceed the event at Texas A&M. We had our pictures taken with the five living former presidents. It was terrific to be in the company of the people I’ve worked with for a number of years — and it’s a great cause to raise money for the people struck by the hurricanes in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico and the Islands.

Because of the one song, audiences probably tend to think your shows are patriotic in nature…
Greenwood: Actually, my shows are not patriotic in nature, only the end. 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. I’m thrown into the spotlight for patriotism because of the one song that I 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. 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. I was born in California and that’s what I did since I was 14 years old is perform live. So it’s something that I like doing, I like the lounges like in Laughlin. 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.

The musical trip around the sun…
Greenwood: 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. 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. People want to have a great visual act — they don’t want you just sitting on a stool playing a guitar — so you give them that and the songs they heard on radio. 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. But we just happen to have the closer of all time. 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 1983. I’ve been given the opportunity to be a uniter, to be an American who people look up to as a role model.

The country just seems to be so divided these days. There’s so much hate swirling around. Can music fix it?
Greenwood: We’ve always been divided. Talk about the Civil War, and Vietnam, the worst. 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.

Name some of the coolest things you did as a result of “God Bless”…
Greenwood: When the Reagan Library opened (I’m a Reagan-nite), I was asked to sing for five presidents. It was Reagan, Bush (Bush was the president then, but it was Reagan’s day), Nixon, Carter and Ford and all their wives and Lady Bird Johnson on the dais behind me and I shook hands with every single one of them when I left.
Texas A&M, day before yesterday, it was a repeat where I actually shook hands with all five of them again, this time it was Obama, Clinton, Carter, Bush and Bush, and so that’s a highlight. And I’ve spent overnight at Camp David, and the White House with 41 (George H. Bush), I was on the campaign trail with 43 (George W. Bush), and for Ronald Reagan. Traveling in those circles you get to know the head of state as a person and I think that’s what a lot of people miss. It’s not just a politician who’s sent down to Washington and becomes part of the machine. They are actually a person and they struggle with decisions that affect millions of people.
I got to catch a flight off the carrier of the Kitty Hawk, that is a Navy plane. I’ve been in four Air Force jets; in the U.S.S. Trident submarine, which is a nuclear sub for sea trials. Being in and around war machines gives me a perspective of what my father did, because I was not in the military.

New music…
Greenwood: I have a new CD we’re in the studio finishing up. It’s 20 of my original songs we’re re-recording, so that no other record company owns them and you see I still sing at this age. It is untitled as yet. I just felt that I wanted something for my wife to have, ’cause I remember Eddie Rabbitt recorded all his music before he left us and it was something for his children and his wife to have. I wanted to leave it for my wife and my two sons.

For those who don’t know, where did “God Bless the U.S.A.” come from?
Greenwood: I had this patriotic feeling since I was a kid watching the flag fly. I was raised on a farm in California 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.

What’s your favorite Lee Greenwood song to sing?
Greenwood: Probably something I’ve never had on stage. I mean, I’m releasing this CD with 20 songs I’ve written and there’s one called “I’ll Be Missing You,” and another one called “My Lover’s Eyes” that I never put on stage. They were from two of my CDs back in the day and I rerecorded them and they’re just my favorites. Of course, I recorded “Love Song” on my very first album that Kenny Rogers made a No. 1 song for me and there’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” Then there’s a myriad of country hits “Mornin’ Ride,” “It Turns Me Inside Out,” “Ring on her Finger,” “Lyin'” — all these songs that people remember and I sing them because I know they want me to, and it’s fun to do it because I have a great band, which will accompany me to Laughlin.

The show in Laughlin…
Greenwood: It’s nothing out of the ordinary, I mean we have a polished show. One show a night, we’ll probably break out a lot of the things we haven’t done on a 30-minute or an hour show, cause it will be longer than that. It will be fun to do the material that’s been laying around that we don’t get a chance to do. I never want to forget songs that were great in my career.


LEE GREENWOOD

Don’s Celebrity Theatre within the Riverside

Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 9-11 (7 p.m.)

See Showtimes for tickets