Country artist Lee Greenwood wishes he could sing like the lead singer from Rascal Flatts and admires Justin Timerberlake.
“We went to see Justin Timberlake, and I thought he was the most talented guy on the planet,” said the 71-year-old Greenwood, who’s been performing more than 50 years. He’ll kick off this year’s tour with a performance 8 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St.
Greenwood’s teenage sons might applaud what he does, but they prefer other music, such as Michael Buble´.
For these reasons and others, the man behind “God Bless the USA” – voted the most recognizable patriotic song in America – has remained true to his humble roots.
Learning piano at age 7 and the saxophone at age 13, Greenwood skipped his high school graduation in 1960 to take the stage at a Nevada casino with his band, the Apollos.
Nearly two decades later, he finally earned a record deal and recorded his debut album, “It Turns Me Inside Out.”
He had no idea then that a single song written on a tour bus in 1983 would propel him into legendary status.
How and why did he write “God Bless the USA?”
“As a kid growing up, I was a Cub Scout. I played baseball, lived on a farm... In Vegas, it didn’t change me. When I got to touring on my bus, I always had this dream of making the United States more cohesive,” he remembered. “I had no axe to grind. It was a time of peace. I thought, ‘You know, I want to do something to make America proud.’ ”
Elvis was singing “An American Trilogy” at the time, and Greenwood was inspired.
Instead of writing another country hit, he sought to create something bigger. That he did.
“God Bless the USA” has been in the top five on the country singles charts three times – in 1991, 2001 and 2003. It’s the only song in any genre of music to achieve that feat.
It also reached the No. 1 spot on the pop chart after Sept. 11, 2001.
Ironically, Greenwood wasn’t going to release the song as the first single off his 1984 album, “You’ve Got a Good Love Comin’.”
“We chose ‘USA’ only because the president of Universal said, ‘I think that should be the song.’ They made the call,” he said.
Thirty years later, the song is played annually at Fourth of July celebrations and sporting events. Greenwood remains touched by its impact, especially when he sings it abroad at military events.
“That’s when you get emotional,” he said.
The songwriter, who’s released more than 20 major-label albums, won numerous awards and charted more than 35 singles, continues to create.
He recently released the seven-song EP “I Want to be in Your World,” writing three of the songs and playing the saxophone on one of his original tracks. He soon expects to release a live album, his first. Recorded last July, the album is in the editing process.
Among his accolades, including Country Music Association Song of the Year in 1985 for “God Bless the USA,” Greenwood was named Male Vocalist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music in 1983, beating out Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs and John Anderson.
He also won Male Vocalist of the Year from the CMA in 1983 and 1984, as well as a Grammy for Top Male Vocal Performance in 1985 for “I.O.U.”
Ironically, his roots aren’t really country. When Greenwood started, he played in a rock band. His music later was considered more pop than anything else.
Country music wasn’t even really a format at the time, he said. Other artists, such as Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap, were considered pop as well back then, he remembered.
“When I first went to Nevada at the age of 16, my eyes and ears were open, and I absorbed everything,” he said. “For 20 years, I did music just for show business with a little mix of Broadway.”
In 1995, Greenwood took a break from touring to open a theater in Sevierville, Tenn. For about five years, he performed Broadway hits from shows such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
The theater sold, and now back on the road, he said, he’s returned to country and enjoys performing in theater settings, as opposed to larger stadiums. That way, he said, he can interact a bit more with the audience.
He’s a fan of today’s country, including artists such as Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Hunter Hayes, Rascal Flatts and Brad Paisley. A reflection of the decades he’s spent entertaining in all sorts of formats, he said he enjoys the variety the music has to offer.
“It takes all kinds to make what we call country these days,” he said. “I love where we are these days.”