As Americans take time to celebrate the Fourth of July, there’s no doubt that Lee Greenwood’s patriotic classic “God Bless The USA” will be heard somewhere today. As it happens, Greenwood is celebrating 30 years since writing the song in 1983 (it was released a year later). What led him to pen those words that have inspired a nation?
“I guess the inner feeling of wanting to be a patriot,” he told of his inspiration in an exclusive chat with Billboard. “My father served in the Navy in World War II, and I had a step-father who was in the Air Force. My very first bass player in my band was a member of the Air National Guard, and we started doing USO Tours when I was about fourteen or fifteen in my home town of Sacramento at McClellan Air Force Base. We did a tour to Alaska right before I got out of high school before it was a state. I have always recognized the sacrifice of the military,” he admits, while stating that ‘God Bless The USA’ was not necessarily an anthem for the military, but it was an anthem for Americans. “As I said on the first line of the chorus, ‘I’m proud to be an American,’ because I hadn’t heard anyone say that in a long time.”
The idea had been in his mind for many years before he wrote the song. “I had been thinking of writing the song for about twenty years. I just didn’t have a platform for it. When I got my contract with MCA, and we had about four or five albums that did well, I got the inspiration to write it.”
In dissecting some of the lyrics of the song, Greenwood said “The very first line, ‘If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life,’ it was about my grandparents’ farm, and about their struggle to make a living. Of course, ‘I’m proud to be an American’ was something I really believed in that we should have more pride in ourselves, and ‘I won’t forget the men who died’ was a tribute to the soldiers.”
The song originally appeared on his 1984 album “You’ve Got A Good Love Comin,'” but it didn’t take long for the song to make an impact.
“When I put it on stage for the first time, it just exploded, and remember this – most songs that are released by artists who are hot on the charts – wind up becoming hits, with very few exceptions. I was not surprised that it was a hit with the public, but what I was surprised about was when I put it on stage, there was such an overwhelming ovation from the people. I had it in the middle of my show a couple of times, and I had to move it to the closer.”
Making it to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1984, the song also achieved success during the Gulf War of 1990-1991, and also in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The song re-entered the singles charts due to the latter, peaking at No. 16. When asked how it felt to have crafted a song that has impacted so many lives — here and abroad, Greenwood said “I’m proud and flattered that my song can give courage to people who believe in America and what we stand for. But, I remember the days of ‘American Bandstand,’ and those times, when songs were really popular, they would mention many cities in it. When I wrote the song, I wanted to mention different parts of our country that would draw people in. You can imagine when I tour Minnesota, Tennessee, Houston, or Detroit, I’m quite popular because I mention their city, but it stands for all of us. I just tried to draw a compass around America, and bring us all together.”