Lyrics Uncovered: Lee Greenwood, ‘God Bless the USA’
“And I'm proud to be an American / Where at least I know I'm free / And I won't forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me.”
These are the beginning lines that anchor the chorus of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” A beginning stanza so powerful, the song is commonly misnamed “Proud to Be an American” by casual music fans. Even so, Greenwood seals the chorus with a payoff even stronger than his opening line: “And I gladly stand up / Next to you and defend her still today / 'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land / God bless the USA.”
Greenwood decided to write the rallying cry in the early 1980s. He and his bandmates were traveling approximately 300 days a year on the road, and Greenwood was well into his career with label MCA. That’s when Greenwood called his producer and said, “I have a need to do this. I’ve always wanted to write a song about America. … We just need to be more united.”
So Greenwood began the writing process.
“I’m from California, and I don’t know anybody from Virginia or New York, so when I wrote it — and my producer and I had talked about it — [we] talked about the four cities I wanted to mention, the four corners of the United States," he tells the Boot. "It could have been Seattle or Miami, but we chose New York and L.A., and he suggested Detroit and Houston because they both were economically part of the basis of our economy — Motown and the oil industry — so I just poetically wrote that in the bridge.”
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Recognizing it as the song he’d wanted to write his whole life, Greenwood finally got the chance to test "God Bless the USA" on crowds at his live concerts. The response was like nothing he’d ever seen.
“When I put it onstage … I think it was the fall of ’83, I put it in the middle of the show, just as a brand-new song. Wow, it was like the audience jumped up, and they were applauding … I did it for about two weeks like that, and then I had to put it at the end of the show as an encore. I couldn’t follow it.”
In a way, Greenwood can never truly follow that song for the rest of his career. Upon its release in 1984, “God Bless the USA” rose to No. 7 on Billboard's Hot Country Song chart, but that hardly reflected what this song would mean to American culture from that point forward. The song has become synonymous with American patriotism, whether it’s a time of crisis like the launch of Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War in 1991, or important American benchmarks such as the inauguration of a new United States President.
“It keeps having a different kind of life,” Greenwood observes. “I mean, during the Gulf War, it was a song of the war for [U.S. Army] Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf. After Hurricane Katrina, it was a song for life and hope, and then after 9/11, it was a song of unity and rebuilding. It just makes me really proud that I’ve done something for the country and for my family. It’s my family’s heritage.”
The status "God Bless the USA" has earned as one of the all-time American patriotic anthems is something Greenwood embraces.
“I recorded the American Patriot album [in 1992] — that album was a way to embrace 'God Bless the USA' with all other American songs, including 'God Bless America,' 'America the Beautiful,' the National Anthem … even the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic,'" he states. "The American Patriot album really was the one that solidified 'God Bless the USA' in a time capsule, if you will, for all time.”
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