Watch the crowd. You'll see. Just watch. • That's what the man says, and he should know: From his sidestage seat, Jerry Bentley has seen this particular red-white-and-blue-blooded surge of patriotism happen for 27 years. • And it always happens. • Bentley — the manager of Lee Greenwood, one of country music's most enduring performers — chomps a mint and casually juts a chin at the crowd, like a world-weary magician about to produce the rabbit for the 1,000th time: "Don't watch Lee. Watch them."
He waves his hand in the direction of some 7,000 Joe and Jane Six-Packs squatting restlessly in a cavernous exhibition hall in the Orange County Convention Center. The folks are here on this March Tuesday because they are passionate about rural electricity — in other words, middle American and proud of it. Greenwood is here because this is just the sort of conservative gathering that slurps up his greatest hit.
He is about to sing God Bless the U.S.A.
And they are about to lose it.
As with Debbie Boone's You Light Up My Life, you either love Greenwood's iconic salute or you lose your lunch. But be careful where you barf. In certain company — say, today's company — you might as well stomp on Old Glory. For them, it's the Other National Anthem.
God Bless the U.S.A. — the only song to reach the top 10 four different times over three decades — is Greenwood's main gig, his raison d'etre, and the first line of his obituary. And he delivers it, over and over again, with gravitas. Over a prerecorded instrumental track (a band means money, and really, what's the point?), the singer opens the valve on his still-syrupy vocal:
If tomorrow all the things were gone I'd worked for all my life,
And I had to start again, with just my children and my wife . . .
The men and women in the audience, predominantly older white folks dressed in Walmart chic, start to sway in their banquet seats. A montage of Americana — the Grand Canyon, Iwo Jima and all manner of amber, wavy images lifted from books on Glenn Beck's coffee table — flashes behind Greenwood.
I'd thank my lucky stars to be livin' here today,
'Cause the flag still stands for freedom and they can't take that awaaay . . .
Things are getting gooey now, but Jerry Bentley, still looking on from the wings, remains rigid. Not cold, mind you. It's just that after hearing his client dole this out 10,000 times (at least) over his three-decade tenure as Greenwood's go-to guy, business as usual is the sincerest emotion he can muster. "Here it comes," he says. "Keep watching them."
And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me . . .
And then, just as the man said, it happens. When Greenwood snaps off the song's next line — nay, order — the crowd does the same thing every crowd has done since the song's 1984 inception. It's visceral, even strangely beautiful in its flash-mob reaction. Let's see Debbie Boone do that.
• • •
All parts synthy sunrise, palatable jingoism and road-trip shout-out, God Bless the U.S.A. is not just Greenwood's encore. It's often the only song he sings, as he makes hundreds of such one-and-done appearances every year, including the inauguration of Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Three minutes and 11 seconds of 200-proof earnestness, God Bless the U.S.A. often plays the role of quasibenediction at conventions, arriving as it does right after the national anthem or opening prayer. Greenwood is usually the rah-rah lead-in to boisterous insurance reps flop-sweating over index-card speeches. Of course, by the time those guys are bloviating, he's often already on his way to the airport, flying to another event in need of patriotic pep.
God Bless the U.S.A. was a legitimate hit when it was first released in 1984. But it wouldn't become ubiquitous until it found robust life during times of extreme national distress. Not unlike munitions factories, Greenwood does best when we're at our worst. He is not unaware of the song's peculiar sales clout: "The country guys are always joking with me about that. They always say, 'I bet Greenwood is hoping for another war!' That's just between us country guys."
Trim and youthful at 68, Greenwood is a savvy, soft-spoken businessman. He has had numerous No. 1 songs over the years, but he knows what people want from him these days. He's not bitter about it: "When I can have this impact, it's powerful."
So if you're wondering: No, Lee Greenwood never gets tired of singing God Bless the U.S.A.
• • •
Greenwood is dressed all in black for today's postshow autograph session. For the one-song performance, he wore his stars-and-bars leather jacket, a sartorial icon up there with Slash's top hat and James Brown's show-closing cape. But the red-white-and-blue bomber is back at the hotel now. That's probably just as well. "I get backlash from some veterans," he says. "They're serious about how you treat the flag."
Per his contract, Greenwood is scheduled for a 90-minute meet-and-greet, or 300 autographs, whatever comes first. (Bentley won't reveal particulars of Greenwood's appearance fee, but in 2007, the singer made news when he canceled a concert after a promoter failed to come up with $20,000 for a one-show arrangement.) For two hours during lunchtime, a continuous line of 50 or so fame-seekers will snake through the TechAdvantage Expo Hall, a sprawling landscape dedicated to free pens and much talk about "polyurethane foam backfill for pole foundations." Greenwood is the hottest attraction, and when meeting fans, he will often sound as if he's running for office, uttering stock lines and generating call-and-response from the throngs.
Case in point: "This country is the place I call home," he says to the front of the line. "I don't like anyone taking it away from us."
"But Lee, we're giving it away!" shouts Bill Averett Jr., the 77-year-old chairman of Southern Rivers Energy in Barnesville, Ga. "Not just the last two years, but the last two decades!"
Greenwood makes a small I-hear-ya grimace and hands Averett a signed copy of 1992 album American Patriot, one of several that includes God Bless the U.S.A.
The country star has no desire to run for office. But maybe he should. Heck, his stump speech is already written.
• • •
When Greenwood wrote God Bless the U.S.A. in 1983 — he is the sole writer — he was contracted to do two albums a year for MCA. That meant cranking out at least 30 potential new songs every six months, a machine-gun demand that didn't allow much time for nuance. He was touring 300 days a year, writing when he could in the back of the tour bus. Songs were whipped out in a matter of days, even hours.
In visiting cities all over America — from the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee, across the plains of Texas, from sea to shining sea — Greenwood had the idea for a song that "united" fans on far coasts. He says he never set out to write an anthem; he was just trying to survive. "Things weren't nearly as patriotic back then," he says.
God Bless the U.S.A. reached No. 7 on the charts when it first appeared on the 1984 album You've Got a Good Love Comin', the flirty cover of which features the singer in what appears to be a robe, an Old Spice commercial gone bad. That album is mostly made up of love songs, but at the end of Side B, you'll find God Bless the U.S.A. Ronald Reagan certainly found it; he used it as the theme of the 1984 Republican National Convention.
"The initial response was overwhelming," Greenwood says. "I broke up during the first live performance. And that really p----- me off! I wanted to deliver. I was emotional. I'm an emotional guy. A month after that first performance, I moved the song to the end of the show. And it's been there ever since."
During the Gulf War in 1991, U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf famously said that he used Greenwood's song — which by then had become just another cut — to fire up his troops. Suddenly, God Bless the U.S.A., now seven years old, was on four different charts at the same time.
In 2001, after the terrorist attacks, the song went double platinum. After the World Trade Center fell, "My first phone call was to Jerry," Greenwood says. "My second call was to Mayor Giuliani asking if there's anything I could do." More to the point, anything he could sing.
"This is what God asked me to do," he says. "And I try to make my delivery as artistic and emotional as I can do.
God Bless the U.S.A. has since been rerecorded by Greenwood five times. There are three videos, including one taped after Sept. 11. He was even asked to do a version of the song for another country: God Bless Canada. Soon enough there will be another iteration on the charts: a "country version" which will accompany a spiritual book Greenwood plans to release in June: Does God Still Bless the U.S.A.?
• • •
And I gladly stand up, next to you and defend her still today,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this laaand . . .
When Greenwood wrote God Bless the U.S.A., "I never meant for people to actually stand up."
But they do. All at once. Greenwood doesn't ask them to; he doesn't lift his arms like a conductor. Or, you know, Moses.
But rise they do. It's something to behold. It looks like the AARP version of the wave. His manager was right: It's awesome.
The women weep openly, smearing makeup lines across their faces. The men look down, at lanyards, at shoes, but rest assured they are weeping as well.
The sweep of emotion in the room isn't exactly patriotic or jingoistic; it's not like everyone's ready to take arms and vanquish the enemy. Instead, it feels involuntary, as if some strange burbling communal need has been tapped. Whatever it is, they stay standing until the final note.
Bentley gives a small, sly smile.
"What did I tell you?" he says lifting an eyebrow. "Every time."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.