When country singer Lee Greenwood wrote the thoroughly patriotic hit "God Bless the U.S.A." in 1983, he'd done so in the wake of a tragedy: The Soviet Union had shot down a Korean Air flight that had departed from the U.S., killing 269 passengers including a member of the House of Representatives. "That event made me pay attention to international news, but I'd wanted to write 'U.S.A.' for an awful long time," he tells Rolling Stone. However, he says, he did not intend the single, which came out in the spring of 1984, to be political.
"I just wanted to have something that would seed the culture and really give everybody something to cling onto, to unite," he says. "And then it was because Ronald Reagan became president and the use of that song for the campaign, but it was not necessarily for the Republican Party, because I really didn't want it to be used politically and still don't. … In the ensuing years, it was Katrina, the Gulf War and then the [9/11] attack on America, and each time it became a little bit more in the fiber of America."
Despite not wanting the song to be taken politically, Greenwood, age 74, has performed it at the inaugurations of three presidents – Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush – and will do so again on Thursday, January 19th, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial alongside Toby Keith and 3 Doors Down, among others, as part of Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" concert. The singer's reaction to his invitation, as he tells Rolling Stone, was, "Man, this is going to be awesome."
You didn't want "God Bless the U.S.A." to be associated with a political party. Has it ever bothered you that it has been seemingly adopted by the Republican Party?
Well, no. I'm a conservative Christian, but I don't use my stage nor my music politically. Other people would like to, so I try to stay on the fringes of that and not be involved. For this election, I was not touring or campaigning for either candidate or for any candidate for that matter.
President-elect Trump's campaign was ruthless and controversial. Did you have any reservations about performing for him?
Well, no, because I'm not really performing for him. The Inaugural Committee chose entertainers to come and entertain the crowd. It'll be incidental, I think, that he will probably be on the Lincoln Memorial stage as that concert is in tribute to the change of power. I will also be singing at the vice president[-elect]'s dinner by request. And it's a thrill for us to do that and be involved in the festivities.
Did you vote for Donald Trump and Mike Pence? Are you a fan of their policies?
I'm going to reserve who I voted for because I don't want that to be public opinion, because then they'll think it's political, so I can't tell you who I voted for.
What are your personal feelings about Donald Trump?
I think he's going to be a great president. I love his slogan, "Let's make America great again," and I'm confident that he'll take a good shot at it.
Do you feel America is not great?
America's always been great, but I think in the past years, we've had a struggle internationally and domestically, and I just hope conditions improve.
But that slogan, "Make America Great Again," reads a bit like he lost faith in the country.
Well, I don't think there's any doubt that Donald Trump, our President-elect, is a patriot. He's a businessman, and I think he's going to do the best for our country economically. I think that now that he's put a general in his cabinet, they'll have a consensus of opinion on ISIS, and I think that's a great thing, we need to get that under control. And the immigration issues. There's so many things I think he'll address in the first six months, and we're praying for his success.
Several musicians who disagree with his various policies have either declined or backed out of performing at inauguration celebrations. What do you make of that?
Well, that's their choice. I'm honored to do it, I'll always be honored. This is my fourth inauguration. For somebody to stand up and make that kind of statement, I think it's a wrong platform. I mean you're not just entertaining the man. It's just a change of power between one president and the next. If you don't support the president, that's something, but this opportunity for me, to go and sing, I really don't care who else doesn't go, or who else does go.
Have your fans on social media been generally supportive of your performance?
I haven't watched any of that. I don't get involved in social media. I have a team that does that, and I think if that's anything that they find negative, they just ignore it. But I haven't heard of anything. My fans are very supportive of what I'm doing.
Have you ever sung for a president or dignitary with whom you've disagreed politically?
No. I didn't get asked in the last eight years to sing for President Obama, but I certainly would have had I been asked. I've had performances at the White House and for all Republican candidates, actually. Reagan, Bush, Bush. And I was proud to do that, to sing for the president, incidental that they are, and Republicans.
In your song "God Bless the U.S.A," you sing, "at least I know I'm free" and it seems that a lot of people are still fighting for rights, whether it's minorities, women, LGBTQ people. They don't feel totally free. What do you think about that?
C'mon. I'm a singer, an entertainer and a writer. I don't represent any particular group of people or their culture overall; it's just for Americans. And we all have a struggle about who we are, and I struggled for my life as well. It's what I do. It's my profession. And the song I wrote seems to be embraced by most Americans. And that makes me very happy that I think I've done something good for the country. Beyond that, I'm not going to get involved in the struggles nor the politics of what's going on.
What has been your favorite experience singing for a past president?
I think it's watching how someone who is in power, who is in the White House, who runs the most powerful nation in the country, is a person, an average American. And when you get that opportunity to meet and shake hands with the man that's running – or the woman – that's running the country, so far there hasn't been a woman, it's an awesome moment because not many people will get that opportunity.