“From the lakes of Minnesota, to the hills of Tennessee…” And so begins "God Bless the U.S.A.”, the American anthem penned by Lee Greenwood, country music balladeer and stalwart civilian patriot. For the last 15 years, as Greenwood has tramped across the globe with the USO, his song’s wistfully patriotic verses and rousing chorus has raised military audiences to their feet like they were hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The tune has inspired generals on the eve of war and comforted military families stationed abroad.
Greenwood will soon return to the international tour circuit after wrapping up a two-year run of a production show called "Portrait of America," held at the Lee Greenwood Theater in Sevierville, Tenn. Military.com staff writer Stephen Trimble caught up with Greenwood to find out the story behind "God Bless the U.S.A."
MILITARY.COM: Let's talk about "God Bless the U.S.A." Obviously, it's your most well-known song. What was the story behind that song 15 years ago?
GREENWOOD: Well, I'll go back before that. As a kid, it was very important to me that love of country was recognized by everyone. I'm from California originally, and I had this desire to make the country more cohesive. I had this great basic need to have everybody know each other, love each other, be in unity. Maybe it stems from the fact that my parents were divorced when I was one year old. Feeling somewhat of an unstable and insecure childhood, I wanted to do something that could correct that. That may have been the catalyst.
MILITARY.COM: Norman Schwarzkopf is said to have played “God Bless the U.S.A.” to his staff the night before Operation Desert Storm. As an Air Force brat, I heard it in 1986 as my family flew to Belgium for a two-year tour. For the military, the song seems to have an extremely powerful message. How do you explain this?
GREENWOOD: I knew we had a song that touched the heart of the public. I knew that it was a song that gave proper salute to the military and its job. I knew that it honored those that had died, and I knew it made people stand up. I actually wrote those words: "I'd proudly stand up and defend her still today," [meaning] even though pride had been gone in the past, it's back and we should stand up at any time and defend this free country. So those who are away from home, it has much more impact on. I am a world traveler as well, and have been with the USO for 15 of the world USO tours with my celebrity cast. It does mean much more. You're in another country where you're subject to attack, and you long for the protection of the United States and all the things you find familiar about it.
MILITARY.COM: There's no pay involved in touring with the USO, as I understand it. What keeps you doing it?
GREENWOOD: I would respond to the needs of the United States in any possible way I could. Most of our tours were requested by the [Morale, Welfare and Recreation staffs], USO and even the White House. If the cause was valid, we would go. I have dropped everything that we were doing before and gone to Panama. We canceled about six dates in order to make that window work. I was on a USO tour with the Fifth Air Force in the Mediterranean [Sea], and the admiral of the Navy called and asked if we would do two more shows on the [aircraft carrier] Nimitz and extend our tour. And we did for another week. If the request was there, it's a need of the U.S. … so I proudly do that. And there's many who have done it just like me.
MILITARY.COM: The military has changed a lot since "God Bless the U.S.A." was released. The Cold War is gone. The military's role is much different and the country is much different now. Do you ever wonder about the whether the song can be still be relevant today?
GREENWOOD: I have no doubt. I believe it's timeless. I'm only encouraged by the amount of people who have told me that. It's difficult for me to look at the military because I was not a soldier. And I will not speculate about the feeling of the military. I just know that the ones that I've talked to, the many I've admired who have been on the general staff, they give me the indications that the military has become more streamlined, some of the bureaucracy is gone, and although there's many proud soldiers that have given up their careers early, our defense budget is shrinking. They understand that the roles have become more streamlined and specific. They've added technology ... It's a simple song that talks about all those things. It talks about home and God and country and how much we love it. And how much we want to protect it. I'm just glad “God Bless the U.S.A.” stands alongside of songs like “America the Beautiful.”
MILITARY.COM: There's been a lot of talk lately about a so-called culture gap between the military and civilians. You're a civilian with strong ties to the military. Do you think either audience perceives your song any differently?
GREENWOOD: It's kind of like the [Veterans of Foreign Wars] and the [Disabled American Veterans]. Those organizations have represented some veterans for years. When there's not a war, they begin shrinking in size. The public, too, when there's not a threat — and I'm not saying that there's not conflict all over the world and that the military isn't involved and that there's not always chances of dying, but the public perceives there is no threat and they've pulled away from that patriotic feeling. There is less emphasis about standing up and being proud of your country and saluting the flag. But I guarantee you — and you know this, Steve — that when we are threatened, this country comes together pretty quick. That's when we need music. That's when we need songs of anthem.
MILITARY.COM: Anything else you'd like say about your current work?
GREENWOOD: I'll be singing at the NASCAR race in Charlotte this weekend. There is a military tribute. There will be five cars painted with the military insignias and emblems. I will sing "God Bless the U.S.A." The 82nd Airborne will do the anthem. It always brings back to mind that strength in defense is a strong [military]. We just have to always be prepared and learn from the lessons of the past.
I will be touring as soon as I leave the theater … How important is “God Bless the U.S.A.” to me when I tour internationally? With our allies, I have to be a little cautious so as not to brag or boast too much about my own country because we're under the flag of another country when we're touring. By the same token, I think people appreciate how much I love my own country. And so that won't necessarily be my lead song when I go somewhere else.
With the release of this new album, which is called "Same River, Different Bridge," the first single is doing very well for us. It's called "The Only Thing That I Care About." And that can be taken in a lot of ways. It happens to be a song about a woman. But the only things I care about would be God, country, family, and the preservation of freedom.