Lee Greenwood is an ICON in country music, with more than 30 albums to his credit. In fact, MCA released an album in 2013 called ICON. The interview with Lee Greenwood took place on October 27th, 2019 on Greenwood's 77th birthday.
Greenwood was born in South Gate California, a few miles south of Los Angeles. After the separation of his parents, caused by his father enlisting, he grew up near Sacramento on the farm of his maternal grandmother and her husband, Thomas Jackson. Although not his biological grandfather, Thomas Jackson was very much a beloved grandfather to the young Lee. Greenwood remembers having chores before school on the farm with the chickens and other animals. What he also recalls are the important life lessons his grandparents taught him such as "Your handshake is your word. Live your life by your passion, faith and be loyal." It wasn't a life of luxury on the farm without even indoor plumbing until he was about 12 years of age.
Music has always been a part of Greenwood’s life as he started playing the piano and signing in the church choir at the age of seven, later teaching himself how to play the saxophone at 12. In junior high, he started his first group with his sister Patricia the piano player in the band. Throughout his Junior and Senior High school years he played in a rock band in bars, earning his own money through his passion, music. By time he finished High School he played most all the instruments in the orchestra and was the Drum Major for the marching band.
In 1969, he joined the Chester Smith Band and had his first television appearance. A short time later, he worked with the country musician Del Reeves. At the age of 13, he moved with his recently remarried mother to Anaheim, CA, but three years later he returned to Sacramento to live with his grandparents again on the farm. Between the two moves, he played in a variety of country and Dixieland bands at numerous locals.
Upon his return to Sacramento, Greenwood joined Chester Smith's band, which raised his profile within California. Soon, Del Reeves hired Greenwood to play saxophone, and while he was with the singer, Lee learned how to become a showman. In 1961, he formed his own band, a pop combo named Apollo.
He passed on music scholarships to College, and passed on an invitation to go training camp after have been scouted by the Dodgers, all to pursue his passion for music. He also elected to skip his high school graduation ceremony to begin work at the Golden Hotel & Casino in Reno Nevada with the “Apollos”.
The band, which changed its name later to Lee Greenwood Affair, played mostly pop music and appeared mostly in casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada. A few records were recorded in Los Angeles with the Paramount label. After the band broke up in the 1970s, Greenwood moved back to Las Vegas, where he worked as a blackjack dealer during the day, and also worked as an arranger, backup vocalist, and lounge pianist, and accompanied strippers by playing organ. By 1973, he became the lead singer and bassist in the Bare Touch of Vegas Revue, while he continued to work as a blackjack dealer at the Tropicana. He held down both jobs for much of the mid '70s.
By the end of the '70s, he was singing in lounges in Reno, which is where he met Larry McFaden, who was then leading Mel Tillis' touring band. Greenwood was initially reluctant to record, but he eventually at Larry's insistence traveled to Nashville, where he recorded a set of demos. Shortly afterward, McFaden became his manager and helped the singer sign a deal with MCA Records in June of 1981. Four months later, his first single, "It Turns Me Inside Out," climbed into the country Top 20.
One of the funniest incidents in his journey in music came when he was playing in a theater in St. Louis with the great Roy Orbison and the Judds. Lee had garnered audience participation by taking the long mike chord into the audience so the spot light was on the audience and himself. On this particular evening while he was signing it was obvious that a women in front of him was trying to tell him something. When it became too obvious to ignore the women, Lee stopped singing and asked her what did she want to say, putting the mike up to her mouth so all could hear, great audience participation. Only this time the women blurted out "Your fly is open" for all to hear. Well what was really open were the four snaps over the zipper and while Lee was not exposed, thank goodness, the embarrassment of that moment took a while to get over. Needless to say, Lee was somewhat cautious of snap over zipper pants from then on.
Greenwood's husky voice was toughened up by years of working in smoky casinos. In 1982, his second single, "Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands," climbed into the Top Ten, beginning a streak of 19 Top Ten singles that ran virtually uninterrupted for the next six years. During that time, Greenwood had no less than seven number one hits including "Somebody's Gonna Love You" (1983), "Going, Going, Gone" (1984), "Dixie Road" (1985), "I Don't Mind the Thorns (If You're the Rose)" (1985), "Don't Underestimate My Love for You" (1986), "Hearts Aren't Made to Break (They're Made to Love)" (1986), and "Mornin' Ride" (1986).
In addition to his solo hits, Greenwood had hit duets with Barbara Mandrell, including the number three hit "To Me" in 1984. His popularity was at its peak in the mid-'80s when his conservative music and neo-conservative lyrics managed to capture the imagination of the nation in his song "God Bless the U.S.A.". The song regained popularity following the launch of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and again, 10 years later, following the September 11, 2001 attacks. "God Bless the USA". Since then, Greenwood has played at many public events and commemorations of the attacks.
In 1995, Greenwood took a break from his touring schedule to spend time with his wife and infant son, Dalton. Greenwood build a theater in Sevierville, Tennessee, and in April 1996, the Lee Greenwood Theater opened its doors. This gave Greenwood the opportunity to perform daily shows, in addition to being with his family. The popular theater operated for five seasons, and closed only for Greenwood to continue touring.
Lee Greenwood has won numerous awards including, Male Vocalist of the year for the Academy of Country Music in 1983, two Male Vocalist of the Year awards from the Country Music Association, 1983 & 1984 and a Grammy for Top Male Vocal Performance in 1985 for “I.O.U.”. He also won CMA Song of the Year in 1985 for writing “God Bless the USA", and the song has even been voted the most recognizable patriotic song in America. Lee knows personally what it’s like to have loved ones fighting for the freedom of all Americans as his father served in the Navy & the Merchant Marine in World War II. “USA” is now part of the film for Homeland Security shown when swearing in ne citizens to the United States.
“God Bless the USA” succeeded beyond what Greenwood expected when he wrote it in the back of his tour bus in 1983. The song earned the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's Patriot Award and a Points of Light Foundation Award. Greenwood has said “USA is the song I always felt the need to write. I wanted to have something that would unite Americans from coast to coast, and to instill pride back in the United States. The song represents my family, my community and those men & women who have paid the price for the freedoms we all love & enjoy."
Lee and his wife, Kimberly, a former Miss Tennessee U.S.A. , fell in love on his 1989 USO/DOD tour. They were married in Nashville in 1992 and have two sons, Dalton and Parker. With great pride Lee advised that Kimberly is still involved with Miss Tennessee U.S.A. as a director of three states. They reside in Franklin Tennessee and as a very proud father, Lee advised that Dalton is obtaining his PHD in cancer research and Parker is obtaining his degree in Musical Composition and composes music for video games and movies.
Lee described the best thing about being in the music industry is the ability to be artistic. Even now, when he plays songs he has done for years with the addition of extra instruments, the richness and thrill of the passion he finds in music is renewed.
Greenwood has just finished rerecording 20 of his favorite songs. The yet to be named CD, there is presently a contest to chose the name, will likely be released in the spring of 2020. Lee Greenwood continues to thrive, tour and live his passion in music, the lesson he learned a long time ago on a farm in Sacramento.
By Deborah Gibson