Lee Greenwood Reflects on ‘God Bless the USA’ and 9/11
In 1982 and 1983, Lee Greenwood was named the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year. His smoky, soulful voice filled the airwaves of country and adult contemporary radio with songs like ‘I.O.U.,’ ‘It Turns Me Inside Out’ and ‘Dixie Road’ — and he’s also known for his patriotic smash, ‘God Bless the USA.’ For the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Taste of Country catches up with Greenwood about ‘God Bless The USA,’ joining Louise Mandrell in concert and his new album.
This is the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and your song ‘God Bless the USA’ helped so many people through the last decade. What is the most touching story you have heard about that song in connection with 9/11?
That’s tough. After the terrorist attacks on America, my wife and I both went to New York and did what we could for Mayor Giuliani and the city of New York and the people of America. There were lots of requests for me to sing ‘God Bless the USA’ everywhere in the country. We actually sang at the fourth game of the World Series. At Yankee Stadium when they had the firemen’s memorial for the 300 firemen that were killed, Bette Midler sang ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ Marc Anthony sang ‘God Bless America’ and I sang ‘God Bless the USA.’ That moment,when I stepped onto the podium at the pitcher’s mound and looked out into the audience was one of the most heartwarming moments for me. Before I went onstage I said to my wife, “I don’t believe this is the right song to sing” — because ‘God Bless the USA’ is a song not about remorse or sympathy, but it’s a song of encouragement, hope and spirit. However, when I got to the chorus, so many people stood up and they were holding pictures of their lost firemen, and that was the moment that I knew that it was the right thing. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.
You did this song back in ’83, and it has stood the test of time. How does it feel in your heart as a songwriter and as a musician to have written one of the most moving songs in American music history, even beyond country music? Everybody just seems to know and love this song.
I’m privileged to have done that. My roots of course go back to all kinds of American music; I was trained in music theory when I was in high school. I play several different kinds of instruments as well — the saxophone is my main, as well as my keyboards — and so the music of Sousa is marching, Stan Kenton jazz, Ray Charles soulful music … it is all within me. When I wrote ‘God Bless the USA,’ there was lots of things that came together with that song. I believe it was blessed by God; I am a Christian and I feel that’s part of what I was brought to Nashville to do. The song lives apart from the rest of my career, and I’ll never write probably another song that’s that good or that moving or that powerful for the American people, but my job as an artist is not necessarily to do that every day that I write and every day that I sing. But it does bring Americans to their feet and that makes me proud.
You’ve just released a new CD titled ‘I Want To Be in Your World,’ and it still sounds like the Lee Greenwood hit songs of the ’80s. On your website, you put up a very interesting quote that says, “I want my family to see what I do, and not what I did.” What do you mean by that quote, and is that what inspired you to make this new album?
My wife Kim and I have been married for 19 years; she was former Ms. Tennessee when we met, and our boys are now 16 and 13. Most of the giant hits we had through the ’80s and ’90s, my sons never heard. Even though they may go back and hear the albums and see the pictures, and see how young I was during that period of time, that I was so productive, I really want them to hear the music I’m singing and writing now. They appreciate what I do; both of them are singers, Dalton and Parker. My wife appreciates the fact that I can still be productive and instrumental in bringing them to a realization that music lives within their life and their house.
One of the new songs on the album that is ‘Dancing with No Music,’ co-written by Billy Montana — what a great tune. Will it become a single?
Well, there’s a possibility for that choice, of course. It’s kind of a subtle approach. I loved the song from the very beginning and I think the production came out very well. My producer and I talked about an awful lot before we recorded any of these songs, and that was one of favorites from the first moment we heard the all demos.
You’re doing some shows in Branson, Missouri with Louise Mandrell. Is there any chance you’ll do some songs you did with her sister Barbara Mandrell, like ‘To Me’?
We’re going to be at the Welk Theater; we open 9/12. On 9/11, we’re at a church in Texas for first responders, and then 9/12 we open at the Welk Theater with Louise Mandrell as my opening act. We’re bringing our complete arsenal of music, of course, and a lot of new things; it’s going to be fun. I get to sing with Louise onstage as well. We do not do that hit. We do another song that Barbara had sang together, ‘One on One.’ It was on the duet album ‘We Were Meant for Each Other.’ I wrote that song for Barbara and I to sing. But you’re right, ’To Me’ was the one hit that got a Grammy nomination. I think it’s great to sing with another Mandrell sister. She’s great.
Tell us the story behind ‘It Turns Me Inside Out’ and how it became your breakthrough hit.
When I first talked about coming to Nashville, I had actually spent 20 years in Nevada and I was ready for whatever the industry would give me. I moved to L.A. for a while; I failed there. I had no success in Vegas other than regional. When the opportunity came to come to Nashville, I actually signed with MCA Records, through Jim Fogelson. At the time my label mates were Reba McEntire, George Strait, the Oak Ridge Boys and Barbara Mandrell. I had to have a song that would establish me different than the rest. I had been singing rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues most of my life, and heard country only from a distance. When I got to Nashville, I had to create my style and incorporate what I did with the country music talent that was there. ‘It Turns Me Inside Out’ was written by Jan Crutchfield, which was my producer Jerry Crutchfield’s brother. They both were from Kentucky and they both understood the community of country music, and they both understood what was needed to blend my rhythm and blues voice with a solid country music song. We chose a ballad over something uptempo, and we had actually five or six of those to follow which established me more of a ballad singer rather than a creative, exciting artist.
You also have a book coming out called ‘Does God Still Bless the USA.’ What’s that all about?
When we were asked to do this by Tate Publishing out of Oklahoma, I got to thinking, at this 10-year anniversary of 9/11, what kind of impact could we make on America after this song has lived for so long? I though, well, maybe we just pose the question because there are so many people saying, “Are we still a Christian nation?” My father served in WWII in the Navy, my stepfather served in the Air Force with his brothers and I’m thinking in those days of WWI, WWII, and the times when America was considered a world power still, and the Cold War with Russia, we were considered a Christian nation. I know we’re diverse and we have many types of religion here in America, but still, I think overall if the flag flies with red, white, and blue we are known as a Christian nation with most of our allies; maybe not by our enemies. However, should we pose the question at this point in history? I think so. I don’t necessarily answer the question, but I do talk about all the points I see in America that maybe have an influence over that question, and maybe what the answer would be. We also have the ‘Prayers of a Patriot’ in the back so people can refer to it for a daily prayer calendar.
Watch Lee Greenwood Sing ‘God Bless the USA’ at the 9/11 Yankee Stadium Memorial