In the early 1980s, Lee Greenwood was a showbiz veteran with years in Las Vegas under his belt, just beginning to make his mark in country music with hits such as “Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands,” “Somebody’s Gonna Love You” and “Going, Going, Gone.” Then came The Song.
“At first it was just popular on country radio,” Greenwood said from his home in Nashville. “It never went to No. 1. Then it was song of the year at the CMA. We had already done three USO tours by that time, so the military embraced the song. Then it got to the White House — Ronald Reagan had used it in a film about his presidency.”
The song, of course, is “God Bless the USA,” which would eventually eclipse Greenwood’s many other hits — including four No. 1 country hits in a row in 1985 and ’86: “Dixie Road,” “I Don’t Mind the Thorns (If You’re the Rose),” “Don’t Underestimate My Love for You” and “Hearts Aren’t Made to Break (They’re Made to Love).” Greenwood and his band will perform a broad selection of his hits Friday night at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.
The Greenwood concert will kick off the third season of the Fairgrounds’ Classic Country Concert Series. Lonestar will perform June 22, followed by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan July 13 and the Gatlin Brothers Aug. 16.
“This is the first year where we actually had all four of our artists in the series confirmed early enough where we could do a series ticket,” said Robert Mulhearn, the Fairgrounds’ venue and facilities manager. “I think that’s been beneficial to us and the consumer. To date we’ve sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 series tickets.”
Greenwood grew up in southern California, and country music stardom was not on his radar until he was pushing 40.
“I never thought I would meet anybody like Eddy Arnold or Roy Acuff,” he said. “The music that I played was more rhythm and blues, jazz, Dixieland and show-business tunes.”
He grew up singing in a Baptist church in North Sacramento, Calif. Piano was his second instrument after voice.
“In order to excel in school, I started playing the saxophone,” Greenwood said.
His mother remarried, and they moved south to Anaheim where his stepfather was a contractor building motels around Disneyland while the park was still under construction in the mid-1950s.
“I kind of learned the contractor trade while I was going to school, and at the same time I discovered the tenor saxophone, which was an upgrade from the alto,” Greenwood said. “Then I played baritone saxophone in the Keystone Kops quartet at Disneyland.”
He loved Dixieland music, but he loved rock ‘n’ roll even more. He had a show band in high school called the Apollos, which played a little bit of everything. They got an invitation to audition in Las Vegas in 1961, and got a one-year contract to perform at the Stardust hotel and casino.
“Our closer was ‘When the Saints Go Marching in,’ and I played every instrument on the bandstand,” Greenwood said. “I ended up jumping on the back of my guitar player and bass player with my saxophone upside down.”
He spent most of the next two decades in Vegas, playing in hit shows such as Mod Squad Marmalade and The Bare Touch of Vegas. He supplemented his income for a few years as a casino dealer, running games of baccarat, 21, roulette and blackjack.
Country star Mel Tillis saw him perform in Vegas and offered Greenwood a publishing deal. He moved to Nashville and scored his first country hit, “It Turns Me Inside Out,” in 1981. “God Bless the USA” came three years later, though its success was eclipsed at the time by a number of other Greenwood hits. The connections to the military and Reagan raised the song’s profile.
“Then came the Gulf War, where General Schwarzkopf used it as a way to inspire his troops,” Greenwood said. “Then the attack on America 2001. It now had a co-title: ‘Proud to Be an American.’ When 2001 came, the rest of the nation then discovered the song. It was yet another plateau for it. The plateau now is Homeland Security uses it in the welcome film for new immigrants.”
Don’t expect Greenwood to jump on anybody’s back when he performs at the Fairgrounds Friday night, but he still likes to showcase his skills on multiple instruments. He will perform a couple of songs solo on piano, but his quintet will back him for most of the concert.
“Most of them have been with me 12 to 15 years,” Greenwood said. “They’re a well-polished band. They know every nuance of my music. Sometimes I change things onstage. It’s really cool to have guys who have the ability to think on their feet and really play well.”