When he wrote “God Bless the USA” in the back of a tour bus in 1983, Lee Greenwood didn’t know how iconic the tune would ultimately become. Over the past 30 years, the single has made history by being the only song to ever be a Top 5 hit three times — in 1991, 2001 and 2003.
While best known for his patriotic hit, Greenwood remains a versatile entertainer. Not only is he a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, as a teen, he passed up track and music scholarships, along with a baseball career, to pursue his musical aspirations. After being discovered performing in Nevada in 1979, Greenwood moved to Nashville, signed with MCA Records, nabbed multiple awards — including three CMAs and a Grammy — and has released 22 studio albums and garnered seven No. 1 singles.
Still writing and recording today, the husband and father to two teenaged boys recently sat down with CMT.com to talk about his past and present. During the conversation, he talked about penning his timeless song, last year’s publication of a book, Does God Still Bless the USA: A Plea for a Better America and supporting the military while performing more than 30 USO tours.
CMT: What was going on when you originally wrote “God Bless the USA”?
Greenwood: When I wrote “God Bless the USA” in 1983, it was a personal passion. I wanted to make sure this song had some kind of importance along with all the other songs I was writing and singing. … We released it in ’84, and it was song of the year in Nashville at the CMA in ’85. … You can’t say, ‘I knew this was going to happen.’ I didn’t know this was going to happen, but I knew it was going to be a hit like everything else we recorded because no artist walks out of a studio and says, ‘I just recorded something that’s not a hit.’ It’s the fans that make that decision, and when I first put it on the stage, which was the fall of ’83, I recognized that I’d done my job good this time.
What prompted you to write your book?
Our book — Does God Still Bless the USA? — is a question I’ve posed to those who might question if we’re still a Christian nation. … A lot of people are under the guise of we’re a split nation, we’re no longer all Christian, and therefore we shouldn’t have God anywhere in our country — not in our schools, not in our pledge, not on our money. And so I’m asking the question, I’m not making the statement. I’m asking the question. … In the book, the very first chapter, “I’m Not Over 9/11,” addresses the terrorist attack and how we become unified, and unity is about being a Christian nation. The second thing is we address our heroes. I address family. I address voting. … We also address the sacrifices our military has made and then people who have immorality in public office and fraudulent public officials.
What do the USO tours mean to you?
We’ve done a bunch. I started working for the USO when I was 14. My father joined the Navy right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and I worked for all branches of the military with the USO as a teenager. … Our longest tour was we mustered in Robins Air Force Base and flew to Frankfurt through Moscow to Uzbekistan. And we played Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Okinawa and on to Hawaii before we came home. So it was two weeks. When you get into that area where it’s a little bit more dangerous, you recognize the commitment of the military and how crazy it gets. And it’s an everyday life. I just wish every American could experience the military life for about two weeks in a combat zone so you’d know what kind of danger they face daily and then when they’re on their way home, the welcome home that you really have to give them.
You turned down a college scholarship and a baseball career. It was such a leap of faith to jump into music and pursue it. Did you ever second guess that when you originally started out?
Yes, I would have loved to play baseball as a career. I was an all-star baseball player — shortstop — and outfielder. I was a sprinter in school, so I was very fast. But I’m only 5-feet-7, and so I kind of figured my career would be short. Trying to look ahead without an agent or anyone to say, “When you get into the big leagues, this ain’t going to work.” … But I made that decision as I graduated high school because I knew my career might be over in 10 years. But as a singer and a writer and a musician, I could go on as long as I wanted to play and sing. And, lo and behold, I made the right choice. I think I was guided by God at that point.
You were a drum major in high school and also played saxophone and piano. Is there anything else kind of unique that you don’t think fans would know right off the bat about you?
I think everybody’s ascent to stardom, no matter what genre you’re in, is a little more interesting than people think. And if you’re really a fan, you might find out some things that you might not know. Like I said before, I was a sprinter and a baseball all-star. Music was also something very important to me. I played most of the instruments in the band. I played drums in a drum and bugle corp. I also was first alto sax in the symphony. I played timpani drums in the symphony orchestra, as well, and I was the drum major for my high school marching band as a senior. I had music theory as one of my classes, two years of college theory in my last year of high school. When I got out of high school, I went straight to Nevada with that ammunition to help me in my profession.
What’s been the proudest moment in your career so far?
My boys are in a private academy here in Nashville … and we did an event called Songwriters Night. It’s a fundraiser for the senior class … We filled the audience in the old theater in Franklin, and I’m the closer of the show, singing “God Bless the USA,” as you might imagine. … So I asked the boys, ‘Would you sing with me at the end of the show?’ And so, on the second verse, I had Parker come out first, and he sang a line of the verse, and then my older boy, Dalton, sang the second verse, and we sang the chorus together. That may be one of my proudest moments.