He was the definitive male vocalist of post-Urban Cowboy country music. The new traditionalists soon wiped the radio dial of that sound, but thanks to one classic hit, Lee Greenwood will always be around.
He was born and raised in California, growing up with his grandparents on a poultry farm. As a child, he showed prodigious talent, learning the saxophone at age seven. By age fourteen, he could play all of the instruments in his school orchestra. As soon as he finished high school, he moved to Nevada, a place he would return to after an opportunity in Puerto Rico ended in disappointment. He passed on an opportunity to be in a band, which went on to great success as the Young Rascals, holding out hope for a solo career down the road.
He secured a record deal with Paramount, but when that didn’t produce a hit record, he moved on to Las Vegas, where he became a dominant force on the casino circuit. By 1979, he had been discovered by the bassist for Mel Tillis, who put him in touch with Tillis’ label, MCA. By 1981, Greenwood was a major label country music artist.
His career took off quickly. His first single, “It Turns Me Inside Out,” cracked the top twenty, but the breakthrough came with “Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands.” It would be the first of a long run of top ten singles, including seven chart-toppers.
Greenwood’s sound was a perfect fit for the earlier half of the eighties. Following the template of Kenny Rogers’ pop-flavored hits, Greenwood’s music was given an added layer of distinction by his trademark vocals, a balance of gravel and power that is instantly recognizable. This sound kept him on the top of the charts until the big breakthrough of new traditionalism, which had barely co-existed on the radio with Greenwood at his peak, but soon replaced him and his contemporaries when Randy Travis arrived on the scene.
Greenwood had a handful of hits in the later eighties, and returned to the top ten one last time in 1990 with “Holdin’ a Good Hand.” His vocal chops earned him several major awards along the way, including Male Vocalist awards from the CMA and the ACM. His performance of “I.O.U.” won him a Grammy in 1984, but it was his songwriting pen that would have the biggest lasting impact.
In 1984, he released a patriotic song called “God Bless The U.S.A.” Though it only reached #7 on the singles chart, it won the CMA award for Song of the Year, and its impact was much larger than any of his other hits. At the time it was written, “God Bless the U.S.A.” was a vehicle for the revival of American pride, a new wave of patriotism that swept the nation in the mid-eighties. Over time, it not only became a standard, it actually set the standard for patriotic songs, particularly in country music.
After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Greenwood’s anthem came back stronger than ever. The song received such heavy airplay that it re-entered the country charts after seventeen years, peaking at #16. Even more impressively, the song hit the all-genre Hot 100 chart, with heavy airplay at other formats helping it reach #16 on that chart as well.
In 2008, Greenwood was appointed to the National Council of the Arts by President George W. Bush. He’s still performing actively and when an event calls for a patriotic song, his is the one that you’re still most likely to hear.
- Ring On Her Finger, Time On Her Hands, 1982
- I.O.U., 1983
- God Bless the U.S.A., 1984
- Dixie Road, 1985
- 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection, 2002
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