Lee Greenwood was already a Grammy-winning country star when he released the song that would become the anthem of American patriotism.
“God Bless the U.S.A.” was a crossover hit — not once but every time America has been wounded or needed an infusion of fortitude.
On Thursday, he performs with fellow country singer Crystal Gayle at the Washington State Fair.
The newspaper caught up with 72-year-old Greenwood from Nashville, Tennessee, the city he’s called home since he was 37.
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Q: You’re a native Californian. What prompted you to move to Nashville?
A: I was in Nevada for 20 years (before Nashville). I thought I was doing great in Nevada. I was working with all the greats. I worked in the same hotel as Elvis. I got my teeth cut on all those entertainers who knew exactly what they were doing. When I moved to Nashville, the explosion in country music was responsible for me and many other artists (to hit it big) during the ’80s and ’90s when country became hip.
Q: When did you become a country artist?
A: I sang country music along with everything else, even when I was in school. But my impression of country music was old school: Eddy Arnold, Sons of the Pioneers. When Ray Charles came out with his (country and western) album — that impressed me. That’s my kind of country. More of an R and B flair because I’m a jazz musician.
Q: You’d been performing since 1960 before you won a Grammy for Top Male Vocal Performance on “I.O.U.” in 1985. You had 16 number one hits. And then “God Bless the U.S.A.” came along. But you’ve described it as an album filler. When did it take off?
A: I never thought it would be a big song. It was overwhelmingly popular (when it was released), but it did not take over my career for several years. We did 30 USO tours and that inspired the military to embrace it, and of course there was 9/11 and Katrina. President Reagan used it for his campaign.
Q: Regarding the song, what moment are you most proud of?
A: I’ve sung it in hospitals for wounded warriors and other places so moving that it brings you to tears. But I think the crowning moment was at the opening of the Ronald Reagan Library. There were five presidents and six first ladies in attendance.
Q: You have a new children’s book out called, “Proud To Be An American.” What’s it about?
A: It’s the (illustrated) lyrics of “God Bless the U.S.A.” and aimed at teaching children about patriotism. It became a popular item with grandparents who want to read to their grandchildren. There’s a free download of a new version of the song in the book.
Q: How do you define patriotism?
A: Today our idea of what a patriot is gets very tangled with social injustice, political correctness, and what’s right and wrong. If you turn toward the military, it’s pretty obvious what’s right and what’s wrong. You put your life on the line to defend the flag and the country and the Constitution. We don’t all have to do that, but we have to do what’s right: Eliminate prejudice, be respectful of everyone, don’t snub your nose at anyone and don’t be the ugly American.