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Patriotism's Price

'God Bless the U.S.A.' gets Americans to their feet but is a bittersweet boon for its singer.

October 23, 2001|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — It's Veteran's Night at the Arizona State Fair, and flags and star-spangled clothes are more prevalent than stuffed animals. The roar of the dirt track race on the far end of the fairgrounds fills the hot night air, and fairgoers are munching on corn dogs while enjoying the local major leaguers' winning of the National League pennant.

This is the perfect place, the perfect time, for Lee Greenwood.

Inside the fairgrounds arena, the lights cut out and a simple if somewhat odd introduction brings the crowd to its feet: "American patriot Lee Greenwood!"

The onetime Las Vegas blackjack dealer and showroom singer emerges in black and turquoise leather and begins his set, and the crowd sits back down and politely waits for the Song.

Greenwood offers versions of "Tequila" and "Rocky Top," but it's not until the final song that members of the audience jump to their feet. They sway arm in arm, hold aloft lighters, sing along, cry, screech and wave plastic American flags with wrist-wrenching intensity.

This is the perfect place, the perfect time for "God Bless the U.S.A."

The 1984 hit that resurged in popularity during the Persian Gulf War is a hit again, as radio stations across the country have added it to their play lists in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The song, with its emotional swells and populist imagery, is no favorite of the critics, but it's easily the most successful patriotic song of recent decades, and for Greenwood, that has been a blessing and a curse. The song, he says, is bigger than the singer.

"It's a career song and an umbrella that keeps you out of the rain but can also keep you out of the sunshine," he says backstage before the show. "The song has taken me places I would never have gone. But there are times when I've said, 'Let's get on with the rest of my career.' But the song is a shadow it's not easy to get out of."

The song has taken Greenwood to the flight decks of aircraft carriers and the cockpits of fighter planes and earned him a special award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He has met five presidents, cashed in on big-dollar corporate appearances and performed at every imaginable type of sporting event. And after the Sept. 11 attacks, he climbed atop the rubble at the World Trade Center to sing the song for rescue workers. In a recent opinion poll on America Online, "God Bless the U.S.A." topped all other patriotic songs, including "God Bless America" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

But at the same time Greenwood can't get major-label interest in his new music, and radio has been frosty to his most recent album, "Same River ... Different Bridge," released by a small company called Freefalls.

"There was a time when I told promoters not to hand out flags at shows," Greenwood says. "I'd have them waving in my face the whole time, every song. Patriotism is one-tenth of who I am, but it's 90% of what I do. But there's a responsibility that comes with the song, and I accept it."

Greenwood's composition was named 1984 song of the year by the Country Music Assn. It presents a man contemplating the loss of everything in his life except family and country and about how that would leave him still grateful for the gift of liberty. "And I'm proud to be an American/Where at least I know I'm free/But I won't forget the men who died/Who gave that right to me/And I'd gladly stand up/Next to you/And defend her still today."

The song, with simple language and a pop-country sensibility, is so mainstream and malleable that it is played at Christian youth conferences, professional hockey games and during countless talk radio shows. During the past presidential campaign, both major parties played it at their events, and Greenwood performed it at a rally in Springfield, Mo., for then-candidate George W. Bush.

But the song "has put Lee in bit of a box" notes Bruce Hinton, the chairman of MCA Nashville, the label that carried Greenwood in his peak years; they parted ways in the mid-'80s when, Hinton says, "we stopped finding success together and it was only fair to see if he could do better with someone else.

"I know there may be some bittersweet aspects because Lee wants to be an artist and have people hear his complete works, but this song has a life of its own," Hinton says. "But he wrote this song, on his own, and that's a testament to his artistry too."

Greenwood, a lean 58-year-old with a tightly shorn beard, was born in South Gate and grew up in Sacramento, where he taught himself to play saxophone and performed with Dixieland groups. He says his parents divorced after his mother grew bitter because his father went off to serve in World War II despite having two toddlers at home.

His lasting youthful impression of the military, though, is the respect he saw directed at soldiers and their uniforms. "When they hitchhiked on the highways, people would always give them rides; they were honored by people," he remembers.

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