Although possessing a strong love of pop music, songwriter and vocalist Lee Greenwood had to pay his musical dues for many years before his rise to stardom in the mid-1980s. Early in his musical career, he worked small venues in Las Vegas, where he grew frustrated watching the headlines go to other performers. Greenwood’s break came when he found an outlet for his talent in the field of country music. Like Kenny Rogers, to whom he is often compared, he mixes his smoky, bluesy vocal style with a fondness for elaborate musical arrangements and soft romantic material.
Despite a long string of hit records, Greenwood is most often identified with “God Bless the U.S.A,” a song he recorded in 1984. While country music tends to shy away from direct involvement in politics, national events sometimes bring strong patriotic sentiment to the surface. Greenwood’s song, self-composed like most of his material, was adopted by the conservative movement that was sweeping the political landscape at the time of its release. This was so even though Greenwood himself disavowed any overtly political intentions. The song has tended to overshadow Greenwood’s career since its release.
Greenwood, who claims Cherokee descent, was born in Sacramento, California, in 1942, and was raised on a chicken farm by his grandparents. Interested in music from an early age, he taught himself to play guitar, saxophone, bass, banjo, and keyboards. Greenwood joined a band in high school and made his first television appearance at age 15 as a bandmember of country singer Chester Smith. On the day of his high school graduation, he left for Las Vegas to pursue his musical fortunes.
Though Greenwood didn’t find his musical roots in country music’s traditions, he was also largely untouched by the more urban development of rock and roll. As he confessed to People, in his youth he was “naive, unhip, even a little square.” The type of music he performed was mostly middle-of-the-road pop.
For two decades, Greenwood endured the career ups and downs of a workaday Las Vegas musician, where his instrumental expertise landed him a spot in the band of country singer Del Reeves. From there, he went on to form his own band, The Lee Greenwood Affair, which signed a recording contract with Los Angeles’s Paramount label in 1965.
Unfortunately for him, the label was soon swallowed up by a corporate merger, leaving Greenwood with no job to support his wife and two children. Working as a fried-chicken cook and as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas’s famed casinos, Greenwood continued to perform in
For the Record…
Born Melvin Lee Greenwood in 1942 in Sacramento, CA; married third wife, Melanie (a choreographer; divorced); married Kimberly Payne, 1992; four children.
Country and pop vocalist, 1965—; formed band, the Lee Greenwood Affair, and signed with Paramount, 1965; entertainer, Las Vegas, NV, 1965-81 ; signed with MCA Records, 1981; released single “God Bless the U.S.A.,” 1984; appeared at televised Republican Party victory celebration, 1984; released American Patriot, 1992.
Awards: Named Country Music Association male vocalist of the year, 1983 and 1984.
Addresses: Management —Lee Greenwood, Inc. ,1311 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville, TN 37210. Record company-Liberty, 3322 West End Ave., Nashville, TN 37206.
small clubs and restaurants. Describing this phase of his life, he told the Los Angeles Times he was “a nobody.” The instability took its toll on his personal life: two marriages would dissolve.
Greenwood’s break came in 1978, when a bandleader for country star Mel Tillis heard one of Greenwood’s performances. The man was impressed by both his vocal ability and the talent that showed in Greenwood’s original compositions. With encouragement from such a music-industry professional, Greenwood began to concentrate on country-oriented songwriting, and shipped demo recordings of some of his compositions to various Nashville labels. But he stuck to his goal of being recognized as a recording artist as well. As he recalled to the Chicago Tribune’s Jack Hurst, “I told [my managers in Nashville] that if a record deal didn’t happen, I was going back to Las Vegas.” When MCA Records decided to take a chance on the 39-year-old singer in 1981, Greenwood moved to Music City.
His voice—raspy, yet smoothly controlled—fit well into the country-pop arrangements that made up the “Nashville Sound” characteristic of the early 1980s. Greenwood’s first album release, 1981’s Inside and Out, generated four singles that scaled up to the Top Twenty on the country charts. He threw himself wholeheartedly into his new career. “I worked the business,” he told Hurst. “It is a business, and you have to divide the ethereal part from the business part.”
Composing the jingle for the “McDonald’s and You” advertising campaign brought additional financial rewards for the now-country songwriter. Soon thereafter, Greenwood achieved star-recognition with the release of 1983’s Somebody’s Gonna Love You, which, in addition to its Number One title track, included “I. O.U.,” a romantic declaration which became a popular choice for wedding music. He received back-to-back Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year honors in 1983 and 1984, a rare feat.
Greenwood continued to turn out hit singles, paired in some cases with MCA’s popular female country star, Barbara Mandrell. His greatest success of all came with “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a memorial for America’s war-dead that inspired prolonged ovations from the time it was first introduced into the singer’s act. The song became a hit in the summer of 1984, and was noticed at the White House where then-President Reagan’s handlers were preparing his re-election campaign. Greenwood granted permission for the song to be used in a Reagan campaign film, and ended up appearing on television on election night, amidst the triumphant pageantry of Reagan’s victory. The song seemed a perfect anthem for twelve years of Republican control of the presidency.
Greenwood later said he had misgivings about becoming involved with partisan politics, claiming no personal party affiliation. “I really wasn’t going as a Republican,” he told the Chicago Tribune’s Tom Popson concerning his appearance with Reagan at a Texas Republican rally. “I was just going to Texas as a guest of the President and I thought that was the best way to get my song out to as many people as possible.” Despite Greenwood’s personal political beliefs, many listeners inevitably identified the singer with the sentiment.
Although his career never attained the high profile it had in 1984, Greenwood has since scored several more Top Ten recordings. In 1992, his duet with singer Suzy Bogguss, “Hopelessly Yours,” climbed into country’s Top 20.
Meanwhile, “God Bless the U.S.A.” took on a life of its own. It received extensive airplay during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The following year, its composer attempted to capitalize on the image with which the song had branded him. He released American Patriot, an album of patriotic songs old and new, including “God Bless the U.S.A.”; the album failed to make a commercial impact. People assessed it this way: “He has never been one to suppress his flag-waving impulses, but Old Lee reallyoutjingoes even himself on this album..... Other than as background for a Fourth of July celebration, though, it’s hard to see where such a unidimensional album would fit into anyone’s listening schedule.”
Greenwood’s success as a country performer has guaranteed that he will never deal cards for a living again. He now presides over a group of business enterprises under the name of Lee Greenwood, Inc., and has received an honorary doctor of humanities degree from Tennessee’s Cumberland University. Prompted, no doubt, by his long years working as a performer in Las Vegas, he has been active in regard to labor-union issues in the performing arts. Married and divorced three times—his third wife, Melanie Greenwood, is the Nashville choreographer who devised Billy Ray Cyrus’s famed “Achy Breaky” line dance—Greenwood wed Kimberly Payne, a former Miss Tennessee, in the summer of 1992.
Inside Out, MCA, 1982.
Somebody’s Gonna Love You (includes “I.O.U.”), MCA, 1983.
Greatest Hits (includes “God Bless the U.S.A.”), MCA, 1985.
Christmas to Christmas, MCA, 1985. (With Barbara Mandrell) Meant for Each Other, MCA, 1985.
Greatest Hits, Volume 2, MCA, 1988.
If Only For One Night, MCA, 1989.
A Perfect 10, Liberty, 1991.
Best of Lee Greenwood, Curb, 1992.
American Patriot, Liberty, 1992.
The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, edited by Fred Deller, Harmony Books, 1985.
Lomax, John, III, Nashville: Music City U.S.A., Abrams, 1985.
Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1984; November 30, 1984.
Country Music, September/October 1992; November/December 1992.
Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1984.
People, October 31, 1983; August 24, 1992.
Spin, August 1992.
—James M. Manheim
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