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'God Bless The U.S.A.,' A Country Anthem With Enduring Political Power

Sep 11, 2018
Originally published on September 11, 2018 8:21 am

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


Lee Greenwood sits at the grand piano in his living room outside Nashville, noodling at the keys and battling a summer cold. He sings softly to himself, tapping out a few bars of "Your Song" by one of his favorite artists, Elton John — before sharing the tale of almost joining the band The Rascals, whose single "Good Lovin' " would become a No. 1 hit. "So I missed that one," he says playfully. He is full of stories like this.

Now 75 and still touring, Greenwood had lived a whole career before he wrote the song that would come to define him. Released in 1984, "God Bless the U.S.A." was meant from the start to be an anthem, a song suited for big patriotic moments. It was nominated for a Grammy for best country song, and has been a go-to selection at times of national strife — though as the songwriter has learned, the reactions to it don't always inspire a sense of unity.

Born in Southern California, Greenwood began gigging at 16. Though he'd missed out on the Rascals job, he took as many others as he could — mostly in Las Vegas and Reno, making money and building his reputation in casinos and lounges. He recalls working in Sparks, Nev., at the Nugget Casino resort, playing in a revue called Naughty but Nice.

"The Nugget in Sparks was a great place for me. I did a number called 'Short People,' " he says, and sings a few bars of the Randy Newman classic. Then he clarifies something about the show: "I'm featured, but it's a line of girls that are featured [too]. This is a nude show. This is a topless show."

Eventually, he decided to give country music a try, leaving behind a life as a successful bandleader and heading to Music City.

"Lee didn't come to Nashville to build a career. He came with a career," says Bill Ivey, a former head of the Country Music Hall of Fame who also served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. "So, right out of the gate he was a serious guy, with a lot of experience in L.A. and Las Vegas."

Greenwood signed with a major Nashville label, and before long made it onto the Billboard charts. The song "I.O.U.," from his 1983 album Somebody's Gonna Love You, earned him a Grammy (for best country vocal performance, male).

Soon after that came the song that would cement his fame. Greenwood says he was inspired by the military veterans he'd see at his concerts, and got to thinking about writing an anthem.

"I wanted to put God first, because I'm a conservative Christian, and I wanted to make sure that God was honored in the song," he says. As for the music, "The Sousa marches were in the back of my head — I did a lot of those as drum major for my high school marching band. And I wanted some pomp and circumstance."

Ivey says "God Bless The U.S.A." nails it as a patriotic anthem. "He opens with gratitude, what a great gift it is. If we had nothing else, freedom would be precious," Ivey says. "Then he goes into the chorus, which is pride, and talks about sacrifice, and invokes the military and how hard it was to create this freedom that he values so much."

The song didn't catch on right away: Though nominated for a best country song Grammy, it faded from view after peaking at No. 7 on the country chart. But it had more lives to come.

Its first high-profile use in a political setting came at the Republican National convention Convention in 1984. Greenwood explains, " 'God Bless the U.S.A.' got associated with President Reagan. They made a film of his life," in which the song was part of the soundtrack.

During the 1991 Gulf War, it became a staple at parades and homecomings. Then came Sept. 11: Greenwood performed the song twice at Yankee Stadium, once for a firefighters' memorial and again at Game 4 of the 2001 World Series.

As its stature grew, covers and interpretations followed — by Beyoncé, Dolly Parton and contestants on American Idol. Greenwood himself recorded an alternate Canadian version. The musician says that when he wrote "God Bless the U.S.A.," the goal was always to unite people. "I meant that the nation would kind of 'kumbaya' — gather arms and let's love each other," he says.

In many cases, it has certainly done that. But over the years, it has also become more and more partisan.

You're far more likely to hear the song at GOP events — like a recent Trump rally in Elkhart, Ind., where I found it blasting from speakers mounted on a pickup truck out in the street. People had been lined up all day waiting to get inside, among them college student Ben Hirschman, who had the words "Proud to be an American" printed on his shirt.

"Oh, I love the song," he told me. "It's my favorite song that I heard when I was younger, right after 9/11. It has a lot more meaning now."

Down the block was another gathering, this one anti-Trump. Attendee David Kolhoff, a retired attorney, said, "I'm not a fan of that song, even though I'm proud to be an American. I was kind of raised [with] the idea you should be quiet — you should do things quietly."

Asked about such partisan reactions, Greenwood says he wishes it weren't so, and that he's proud to have sung the song for five presidents — Republican and Democrat. But more than that, he's honored that there are those who do consider it an anthem.

"When you say the word 'anthem,' it takes it to another category," he says. "After 30-some years that I've sung this on stage, people do get up as if it is an anthem for their lives, for their country. Pretty cool."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today for our series American Anthem...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.")

LEE GREENWOOD: (Singing) And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free.

INSKEEP: "God Bless The U.S.A." by country singer-songwriter Lee Greenwood has been a go-to song at times of national strife, like the attacks on September 11 which we are remembering today. But reactions to this song have become partisan. NPR's Don Gonyea went to meet its creator.

GREENWOOD: (Playing piano).

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Lee Greenwood sits at the grand piano in his living room outside Nashville. He's noodling at the keys and battling a summer cold and playing one of his favorite artists, Elton John.

GREENWOOD: (Playing piano, singing) It's a little bit funny, this feeling inside.

GONYEA: Greenwood, who is now 75 and still touring, had a whole career before he ever wrote "God Bless The U.S.A." He's been in the business since he was 16 and playfully laments some early what-if moments, like how he just missed joining the Rascals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD LOVIN'")

THE RASCALS: (Singing) One, two, three. Good loving.

GONYEA: You know, these guys.

GREENWOOD: So I missed that one.

GONYEA: But he worked and he worked, mostly in Las Vegas and Reno, playing gigs, making money, building his reputation in casinos and lounges. He recalls working in Sparks, Nev., in the late '70s at the Nugget, playing in a revue called "Naughty But Nice."

GREENWOOD: The Nugget in Sparks was a great place for me. I did a number called "Short People." (Singing) Short people got no reason and...

GONYEA: It's a Randy Newman song.

GREENWOOD: Yeah, Randy Newman. And I'm featured, but this is a nude show. This is a topless show.

GONYEA: Greenwood is full of these stories. Eventually, he decided to give country music a try, leaving behind a life as a very successful bandleader.

BILL IVEY: Lee didn't come to Nashville to build a career. He came with a career.

GONYEA: Bill Ivey is a former head of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

IVEY: So right out of the gate, he was a serious guy with a lot of experience in LA and Las Vegas.

GREENWOOD: (Playing piano) Let me just play a little bit for you. It goes like this.

GONYEA: Greenwood signed with a major Nashville label and, before long, made it onto the Billboard charts. This song, "I.O.U.", earned him a Grammy.

GREENWOOD: (Playing piano, singing) You believe that I've changed your life forever. And you're never going to find...

GONYEA: Soon after would come the song that would cement his fame.

GREENWOOD: (Playing piano, singing) I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free.

And the melody just sort of flowed.

GONYEA: It was "God Bless The U.S.A."

GREENWOOD: First of all, I wanted to put God first because I'm a conservative Christian. And I wanted to make sure that God was honored in the song. So the title had already framed - "God Bless The U.S.A." And I didn't know how I'd wanted to say it, but it was like (playing piano) - kind of thing. And I didn't know exactly what chords but - (playing piano, singing) God bless the U.S.A.

Or (playing piano, singing) God bless the U.S.A.

There could've been a lot of ways to do that. Simple was better.

GONYEA: Greenwood says he was inspired by the military veterans he'd seen at his concerts, so he got to thinking about writing an anthem.

GREENWOOD: The Sousa marches were in the back of my head, and I did a lot of those as drum major for my high school band. And I wanted to have some pomp and circumstance.

GONYEA: And "God Bless The U.S.A." is absolutely an anthem, says Bill Ivey, who also served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.

IVEY: He opens with gratitude. What a great gift it is. If we had nothing else, freedom would be precious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.")

GREENWOOD: (Singing) And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free.

IVEY: And then he goes into the chorus, which is pride and talks about sacrifice and invokes the military and how hard it was to create and maintain his freedom that he values so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.")

GREENWOOD: (Singing) 'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land...

GONYEA: The song did not take off right away. It peaked at No. 7 on the country charts, then faded. But it had more lives to come. Its first high-profile use in a political setting came at the Republican convention in 1984.

GREENWOOD: The reason "God Bless The U.S.A." got associated with President Reagan, they made a film of his life.

GONYEA: The song was part of the soundtrack. During the 1991 Gulf War, it became a staple at parades and homecomings. Then came 9/11.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREENWOOD: (Singing) And I won't forget the men who died who...

GONYEA: Greenwood sang it twice at Yankee Stadium. Once for a memorial service heard here, and again at Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. As its stature grew, cover versions followed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.")

BEYONCE: (Singing) There ain't no doubt I love this land.

GONYEA: That one's from Beyonce, and Greenwood himself recorded an alternate Canadian version of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS YOU CANADA")

GREENWOOD: (Singing) And I'm proud to be in Canada...

GONYEA: Greenwood says when he wrote "God Bless The U.S.A.," the goal was to unite people.

GREENWOOD: I meant that, you know, the nation would kind of kumbaya. You know, let's all, like, gather arms and just be - just love each other.

GONYEA: In many cases, it has certainly done that. But over the years, it has also become more and more partisan. You're far more likely to hear it at GOP events. Take this Trump rally in Elkhart, Ind., where a version of the song is blasting from loudspeakers mounted on a pickup truck out in the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) 'Cause the flag still stands for freedom...

GONYEA: People had been lined up all day waiting to get inside. Among them, college student Ben Hirschman.

Tell me what your shirt says.

BEN HIRSCHMAN: My shirt says proud to be an American, which I am.

GONYEA: That's from the song.

HIRSCHMAN: Oh, I love the song. It's my favorite song that I heard when I was younger. Right after 9/11 - it has a lot more meaning now.

GONYEA: But down the block, another gathering. This one anti-Trump. David Kolhoff is a retired attorney.

DAVID KOLHOFF: I'm not a fan of that song. Even though I'm proud to be an American, I was kind of raised, you know, you should kind of be quiet. You know, you should do things quietly.

GONYEA: Asked about such partisan reactions, Greenwood says he wishes it weren't so. And that he's proud to have sung it for five presidents, Republican and Democrat. He says he is honored that some do consider his song an anthem.

GREENWOOD: When you say the word anthem, it takes it to another category. After - what? - 30-some years that I've sang this on stage, people do get up as if it is an anthem for their life, for their country - pretty cool.

GONYEA: Lee Greenwood on his song "God Bless The U.S.A."

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BLESS THE U.S.A.")

GREENWOOD: (Singing) And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.