Country crooner Lee Greenwood isn’t a one-hit wonder, and this performer didn’t just come to Nashville after drifting down some “Dusty Dixie Road.”
But, then again, it sure seems that way.
This slight-built singer with a big, vibrato voice has been performing for decades. Last year he celebrated his 60th year in music. He has performed professionally for more than four decades.
Greenwood, a native of Los Angeles, California, got his start in music at age 7 when he learned to play the piano. By 12, he had perfected the saxophone. He soon started his first music group, the Moonbeams. By the time he graduated from high school, Greenwood was drum major for the marching band and could play nearly every instrument in the school orchestra.
At the same time Greenwood was honing his musical skills, he was enjoying equal success in athletics. He was drafted to play professional baseball and was offered track and field scholarships … all of which he passed up to pursue a music career. He even missed his high school graduation to perform at a casino in Reno, Nevada, with his new band, the Appolos.
In part, Greenwood can thank country artist Mel Tillis for launching his musical career. While playing another casino in 1979, he ran into Larry McFaden, Tillis’ band leader. McFaden brought the Californian to Nashville and, in short order, got him signed with the Halsey publicity agency, an agency that also represented the Oak Ridge Boys. In 1981, Greenwood signed with MCA Records.
Greenwood’s first single, “It Turns Me Inside Out,” from the 1981 album “Inside Out,” gave him an immediate hit song, topping out at No. 17 on the country charts. The song leaned heavily on Greenwood’s vibrato voice, a voice that gained him much fame over the next several years. He followed the song up with a string of Top 10 hits, including “Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hand,” “She’s Lying” and “IOU,” a song that made an appearance in the Billboard Hot 100.
By 1983, Greenwood was a bona fide country star. That year, he released his first No. 1 hit, “Somebody’s Gonna Love You,” a song he followed up with another No. 1 release, “Going, Going, Gone.” He continued to turn out hits through the late 1980s, including five more No. 1s, ranging from “Dusty Dixie Road” to “Morning Ride” and “Hearts Aren’t Meant to Break.”
But despite the body of work that made him one of country music’s most popular acts during the 1980s, it was a 1984 song that only rose as far as No. 7 on the charts that has best withstood the test of time. This song has ensured ongoing fame for Greenwood, even as his career has waned.
In 1983, in response to the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 by the Soviet Union, Greenwood penned “God Bless the USA” while traveling on his tour bus.
“It’s the song I always felt the need to write,” he once said. “I wanted to write something that would unite Americans coast to coast, and to instill pride back into the United States.”
The song, he added, represents his family, his community, and the men and women who have paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we enjoy.
While “God Bless the USA” was only a minor hit for the overachieving Lee Greenwood, its impact has lasted longer and stretched further than even the singer/songwriter himself ever imagined.
In fact, “God Bless the USA” has kept Greenwood, who is now 80 years old, relevant to not only country music but also to American pride for nearly four decades. While it fell short on its initial release, today “God Bless the USA” is the only song in any genre that has appeared in the Top 5 three separate times (1991, 2001 and 2003).
And the reasons are obvious. Like “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful,” Greenwood’s song has become a de facto “national anthem” for the U.S. Whenever the nation is threatened or achieves something important on the world stage, radio stations will pop in “God Bless the USA” and play it until the news cycle ends.
After its initial release, the song again appeared on the charts during Operation Desert Storm, in the aftermath of 9/11, and again during the second Gulf War.
But “God Bless the USA” is not confined to radio.
Greenwood’s signature song is regularly performed at military ceremonies, sporting events and patriotic events throughout America. It is even used in the film the Department of Homeland Security plays during the swearing-in ceremony for new Americans.
Much of the time, it is Greenwood himself who performs the song. Greenwood, a staunch conservative, took his song on the political road for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, singing it at rallies across America in both 2016 and 2020. More than a few other politicians have informally adopted the song for their own purposes, using it to add a patriotic flair to rallies and appearances.
Needless to say, the song long ago achieved Platinum status.
But to think of Lee Greenwood as just one song, or as a cross-bearing conservative, is a mistake.
Since 2008, through two Republican and two Democratic presidencies, Greenwood has served on the National Council on the Arts. He has written a best-selling children’s book titled “Does God Still Bless the USA?” He has also been awarded the MMP (Mississippi Music Project) Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Awards in general are not something Greenwood has missed out on.
During his career he has been nominated by various organizations for awards 26 times, winning five of them. Nominated for six Grammies, he took home the award in 1984 for Best Country Vocal Performance for “IOU.” The Academy of Country Music has nominated him for nine awards, and he brought home top male vocalist in 1984.
The American Music Awards has nominated Greenwood four times, and the Country Music Association has nominated him 12 times. Of those, he won three times, including Song of the Year for “God Bless the USA.
Chances are, as long as Greenwood can still sing, you’ll find him on stages and at special events across America, belting out what seems to be one of the most impactful songs of the last four decades.
Until next time, while you’re out on the road take a look at the USA through your windshield. It’s easy to see what inspired Lee Greenwood. God has truly blessed this nation.
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.