Lee Greenwood on "God Bless the USA": "I've Sung It at Least 5,000 Times"
Most people aren't familiar with the album that spawned Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." Released in 1984, You've Got a Good Love Comin' featured cuts written by future Alanis Morrissette hitmaker Glen Ballard and established country songwriters Wayland Holyfield and Mary Ann Kennedy.
The album was your typical hard-lovin' '80s-country mechanism, with songs like "Love Me Like I'm Leavin' Tonight" and "Lean, Mean, Lovin' Machine." The title track came with a pretty fun music video set in London, too. Digging the wardrobe.
Rightfully so, the final track on Comin', "God Bless the USA," has endured the most since Greenwood first put fingers to keys three decades ago. He had set out to write the patriotic anthem that had been rolling around in his head for some time, but was propelled by a plane crash.
By the time he let forth with "USA" in 1984, Greenwood already had a decent recording career going, but his new American anthem would soon trump even "Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands" and "I.O.U."
If he had a nickel for each time he performed it live or a recording was played at a public event, he could probably afford a few yachts or a fleet of Bentleys.
Now 70, Greenwood is still on the touring trail (though not currently), and celebrating the 30th anniversary of "USA," which CBS Radio has called "the most recognizable patriotic song in the country."
People forget that the song was written in response to the September 1983 downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by the Soviet military. The crash claimed the lives of 269 people, including 63 Americans.
Greenwood actually wrote "God Bless the USA" in 1983, the same year of KAL 007, but it was not released until the next year. He says the writing of the song came out of his usual late-night brainstorming sessions he had around this time.
"I wrote "God Bless the USA" in my bus in 1983 going between gigs," he says. "I was touring 300 days a year those first few years. It was difficult to get to sleep after a show, so I usually stayed up several hours and slept until noon to rest my voice.
"We had an electric piano mounted on the wall on hinges to save space that I would play and write songs with as we rolled down the highway," he adds. "I could record anything I played."
Greenwood would record and record each night while his band slept, listening back to what he had before taking the tunes into sound check.
The singer never anticipated "God Bless the USA" becoming a sort of alternate national anthem as he was putting his fingers to the keys. Even still, the song's legacy makes him very proud.
"In my mind, there is no alternate national anthem," he says. "It has taken its place alongside our other favorite patriotic songs such as 'America the Beautiful' and 'God Bless America.'"
Whenever something bad happens in the U.S., the song seems to swoop in to speak for people, stoking patriotic fires. It's almost shorthand for American perseverance.
"When crisis comes, it seems to fit every situation: war, hurricanes, tornadoes, space-shuttle disasters and, yes, the terrorist attack on American soil," says its author. "'USA' is a song of pride, hope, spirit, unity and healing."
Oddly enough, Greenwood says that the only person who ever asked his permission to parody the song was his friend, Christian comic Mark Lowery. Not even "Weird Al" Yankovic has asked.
"I loved Beyoncé singing 'God Bless the USA,'" he says. "I would have sung it with her if she had asked," he says, referring to Mrs. Carter's 2010 rendition.
Greenwood's constant touring schedule and personal-appearance calendar means that he has sung "God Bless the USA" so many times it's probably more of a muscular reflex than a song.
"I toured about 250 days a year the first ten years on the road and now about 100 days a year," he reckons. "I sang it every night and sometimes twice a day. I'm guessing I've sung it at least 5,000 times."
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