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Proud to Be an American

What singer/songwriter Lee Greenwood has to say about his beloved classic

spinner image lee greenwood holds a microphone and sings in front of an american flag
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

From television commercials to political rallies to sporting events, Lee Greenwood’s anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.” is recognizable on any stage. Nearly four decades after he wrote it, Greenwood still closes his shows with his most popular song. But what changes would he make to it if he could? And what inspired him then — and does now — about America? We spoke with Greenwood over the phone and asked.

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AARP: What was your inspiration for “God Bless the U.S.A.”?

Greenwood: It was the Vietnam era, and I was living in Las Vegas during the Vietnam crisis. I’m gonna call it a war because it was a war. My father had joined the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and I was just wondering if there was anything that I should be doing because I was not in the military. Even though things were really good for me, I never lost that feeling. One night I got the inspiration, and I remembered what I felt like as a kid playing in the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps in Sacramento — and when I was the drum major of my high school marching band playing the national anthem. I just loved the pageantry; I love the feeling of unity; I love the feeling of bringing people to their feet as Americans and celebrating America. So I finally got to the point where I said, “I need to do something, and it feels good to do it now.”

AARP: Did you ever expect the reaction to the song to be as big as it was?

Greenwood: No. “God Bless the U.S.A.,” in my mind, was never going to be a single to be released, and that’s important in the old days. When I first sang it on stage, which was probably a month or so after I wrote it, and it was a little surprising to me that people came to their feet. We only had it in the middle of the show for a few more times before it became my closer because there was no way I could follow it. 

AARP: You skipped your high school graduation, and you didn’t go to college. What is your advice for others considering this path?

Greenwood: You have to follow your dream, no matter what it is. I have two sons. One just graduated Vanderbilt University with a Ph.D., and he’s 28 now — so that’s a long time to be in school. He’s going to do something wonderful. My other son, who’s a graduate of Texas Christian University as a Chancellor Scholar, is going to the University of Miami to get his master’s in musical composition — and that’s the road they have chosen. But it wasn’t available to me because I needed to go to work and make money and leave home. So I chose that road, but I think the advice to anyone is to follow your dream. Go and be a lawyer or whatever it is, if that’s your passion. If it takes school, then you’ve got to go to school. For me, I had all I needed.

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AARP: What inspires you about America today?

Greenwood: We tour all the time. Not as much as I used to be, maybe 100 days a year now. But no matter what city I go to, people see my bus and they come up and they talk to me about my touring life, and I just get a good cross-section, whether it’s a big city like New York or small cities like Des Moines or Beloit. And I get the local people who are America’s fiber, and I don’t care what culture they come from because they’re all American.

AARP: How different would your song be if you wrote it today?

Greenwood: It would be the same as the song I wrote then. I’m proud to be an American. Don’t forget the soldiers, and don’t forget the military because they sacrifice when we are sleeping. I’ve lived through an awful lot, and I’ve watched America change. My only fear I have is that we will overpopulate the Earth. But the only thing that usually cuts down population is disease or war, and we don’t pray for either one of those. So we will keep expanding on this planet until we find out there’s no more room.

Share Your Experience: What makes you proud to be an American? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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