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Backstage With Lee Greenwood: 'Proud To Be An American'

By Tamar Fleishman

The singer of the patriotic anthem "God Bless the USA" was popular with military audiences even before he wrote the song that launched his fame in 1984. Growing up near military bases, Lee Greenwood began performing for the troops - and earning them as his fan base - early in his career.

His musical career actually began at his school orchestra in Sacramento, Calif. He has always been dedicated to his musical ambitions through thick and thin, turning down a track scholarship to the University of the Pacific and even a chance to become a pro baseball player.

Greenwood skipped his high school graduation to perform at a Las Vegas casino, hooking on with a group headed by keyboardist Felix Cavaliere. He wound up living at the New Jersey apartment of the group's drummer, Dino Dinelli. Greenwood turned down the chance to join Felix and Dino's new band - which became the popular late 1960s group, the Young Rascals.

Fortunately for Greenwood, he was soon discovered by MCA Records, and his voice eventually became one of the most recognized in country music.

"God Bless the USA" catapulted Greenwood to stardom in the 1980s, and America's servicemembers became some of his biggest fans. Greenwood also has the military to thank for something else: During his USO tour in 1989, he met his future wife, then the reigning Miss Tennessee USA.

"When I wrote the lyric, 'I'm proud to be an American,' I really meant it," Greenwood says. "The song represents my family, my community and all the Americans who are proud of who they are."

After years of relentless touring, Greenwood settled down to spend more time with his family, content to perform mostly at his own Lee Greenwood Theater in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he responded to increasing demands for him to tour nationally. (Read more about Greenwood's schedule and recordings at www.leegreenwood.com).

What are your latest projects?

Greenwood: We've been touring a lot. I have two new recordings: one is pop standards and the other's a new country CD. I'm doing TV shows and Stars and Stripes. In December, I played at the Army-Navy football game.

How did you start performing for the military?

Greenwood: I was 14 years old when I started doing USO shows in Sacramento for the Army and the Navy. Ever since then, I've wanted to do my part as a citizen to support and give confidence to the military and their mission.

Did you have any family members who served in the military?

Greenwood: My father was in the Navy during World War II and I had relatives in the Merchant Marines. My stepfather was in the Air Force.

You went from recording to performing in Las Vegas to opening your own theater in Tennessee. What advice do you have for our readers who might need to make a change for financial reasons?

Greenwood: You have to follow your calling. You balance your passion with the needs of your family. Obviously, there are some gray areas. You have to sacrifice for the future. I went from being 35 years old and really having no career to age 37 and doing great. Generally, people take the path of least resistance. To have success, you have to have a laser vision. Focus on what is important, even if there's no money in it. And pray.

You were a working musician since you were a kid. Have you ever had any non-musical jobs?

Greenwood: I was raised on a farm; my family were sharecroppers. I was on a tractor by the time I was 12. My stepfather worked in construction and I helped him build hotels.

Where did you get your first paycheck, and what did you do with it?

Greewood: When I was working on my family's farm, I would take flowers to sell to the Chinese market. I bought clothes and socks.

Do you manage your own money?

Greenwood: Yes. I do have a business manager and my wife is also a business manager. My new manager is a former Marine.

Do you have investments?

Greenwood: Absolutely! I'm in real estate and stocks. I'm a landlord; I have two rentals. You have to pay attention to investments yourself; otherwise, when the cat's away... everything can escape you.

What's a splurge to you?

Greenwood: Vacations with my wife. But I feel it's a necessity too, for our unity. It's important to spend time together as a family. We went to Italy - it was very educational!

What is a complete waste of money to you?

Greenwood: There's no time for luxury items, no time for the maintenance and time you have to spend watching over them. When I want to go on a boat, I borrow one. I don't need luxury items. I was always taught, "Don't show off!" I'm more of a low-key guy anyway.

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