April 22, 1997
by Gary James
When you're talking professional, you're talking Lee Greenwood. Here's a man who's never missed a show!
After 20 years of touring, Lee Greenwood has decided to put down roots in the Great Smoky Mountains opening his own theater in Sevierville, Tennessee where he'll perform more than 200 shows annually. It's a $10 million dollar, state-of-the-art theater.
On opening night (April 1, 1996), former President and Mrs. George Bush, t.v. and radio legend Ralph Emery, singer T.G. Sheppard, and Mae Axton, writer of "Heartbreak Hotel," were present -- to name just a few. Lee Greenwood has performed for audiences from coast to coast and around the world. He's entertained presidents, kings, queens, and American servicemen.
Though he did not start out as a country peformer, he found easy acceptance with country audiences. Only two years after his debut album, Lee Greenwood was voted the Country Music Association "Male Vocalist of the Year." The next year, he won that award again, as well as a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance. His first three albums achieved gold sales status, along with his Greatest Hits. In 1985, the CMA awarded him "Song of the Year" honors for writing "God Bless The U.S.A." His album, "God Bless The U.S.A." was used extensively throughout Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in 1984, and again in George Bush's road to the presidency in 1988. Then, General Norman Schwarzkopf re-ignted the song's popularity by using it as an anthem for the Persian Gulf War. We're proud to present a rare interview with Mr. Lee Greenwood.
Q: I am certain that somewhere out there someone is asking, "Whatever happened to Lee Greenwood? Isn't it sad how the newer guys like Clint, Garth, and Alan have shoved everybody else aside." What would you answer to them?
A: Well, I did the same thing to Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers and a few others like Willie Nelson, when we came on the charts. It's a natural osmosis of things. You can only stay "hot" for so long. Even Michael Jackson fades. We were proud that we had a long career on radio. As far as a current record act, maybe not quite as long as Alabama, Sawyer Brown or Reba McEntire. When I came on the label at MCA, I was with The Oak Ridge Boys, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Barbara Mandrell. We all had similar success, but, I just moved to another place. I began to pull away from publis touring because we could see our crowds were starting to drop off. We went in-house and did all industrial shows for about 4 years, or more than that, not all, but mostly, a few public shows here and there. We've opened our own theater, The Lee Greenwood Theater in East Tennessee, and it is now where we can gain once again the visibility and access to the fans who were there for me, 3 or 4 years ago.
Q: Why did the crowds start to drop off? Was it because of the new acts?
A: Yeah. There's only so much money in a marketplace, and so many acts can tour. If you're gonna do a public show in an arena and there're 30 acts touring and 30 days in a month. You've only got 4 weekends (in a month) really. Sometimes a pop act or an R&B act will actually conflict with a country act, and there's so many country acts on the road, even they conflict with each other. So, when you're not the current record success, and there's somebody new coming along, it's a natural thing that's gonna happen. People have seen you three, four, five, six times. They want to see a new act.
Q: I would've thought that the logical place for you to build a theater would've been Branson. Instead you chose Sevierville, Tennessee. How come?
A: Sevierville is one of the tri-cities int he entertainment muscle area of east Tennessee, just southeast of Knoxville. It's Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. We chose the latter because Gatlinburg being sort of a land-locked, romantic, Swiss villa looking place for adults to go, but it's turning into more of a t-shirt shop than anything. Pigeon Forge is where Dollywood is located, and several theaters there, but again very crowded and hard to get in and out of now because there's just a little bit too much congestion. We moved on up to Highway 66 toward Interstate 40 where we found financial partners who had the same vision as I did. We have actually built our theater on a place that will be called River Bluff Landing. There will be a $30 million dollar aquariam to be erected by 1998. The River Bluff Inn, which will be 250 rooms, to be done by 1997. The Windgate Hotel opened in August, 1996, and my own restaurant will open in Spring, 1997. There will be two other theaters on the property, completed by 1997 to house other entertainers. We're just kind of like all there by ourself. As things begin to grow our way, we recognize we're in a growth area, which will really make a big impact on Sevierville, the city.
Q: The Governor of Tennessee predicts Sevierville will overtake Branson in popularity. Do you also share that belief?
A: It already has. I'll give you the same quote Johnny Cash gave when he was moving to Branson to get his economy going and that is, "The last person out of Branson turn out the lights." We moved to this area of the country because the Smoky Mountain National Park is already the most visited national park in the United States. It's double the number of most other places, and certainly Branson, Missouri is a tourist destination, and that includes Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, San Antonio. Only save Orlando and probably San Antonio which has Fiesta Texas, but that's so far south you're missing most of the eastern seaboard crowd. We have three interstates that intersect here, between east and west, and north and south. We already have 11 million visitors with hardly anything to do. People come in here and people make some hotel reservations, but they don't really have a lot of plans. It's a family generated thing here. People drive by car, rather than take tour buses.
Q: So, people are coming in from all areas of the country?
A: Oh, yeah. I check the license plates. Most of the people who come let's say from west of Kansas, will fly in. A few drive in. I'm the RV spokesman for the United States this year, and we have an awful lot of RV's.
Q: Why did you decide to do over 200 shows a yaer? Aren't you inviting burn-out?
A: No, I toured over 300 shows when I was touring on the road with my road show. We have economic goals we want to reach, and we know the crowds here. We will have 3 months off each year, January, February, and March to re-group. We do a very long show I will admit. It's gonna take some concentration, to protect my voice. I did a matinee and an evening show yesterday, and I'm still talking pretty good.
Q: How long of a show is it?
A: We're two hours and 35 minutes.
Q: That's almost like a rock show isn't it?
A: Well, we have an intermission in the middle. As far as entertainment speaking, this is not a concert. This is somewhere between a Vegas show and a Broadway show. We have $80,000 in costumes. We've got sets and designs. The show is planned. It has some informality as far as me talking to the audience. With 142 cues, you really can't get out of step. So, it makes it move along very quickly. I've canvassed the audience in the two months we've been open and basically said, "Do you mind the length of the show?" and they said, "It wasn't long enough." (laughs) I'm amazed that what we've done is right, and that is that we've made it move so quick, that people don't realize the length of the show at all, which pleases me, of course.
Q: I'm guessing that one of the reasons you got into show biz, was to avoid the daily grind of a 9 to 5 job. But, now that you have your own theater and a set number of shows, it is like a 9 to 5 job. How do you balance the artistic side of music, with the business side?
A: I look for the artistic part of the show. I look for the spontaneous part of the show. Don't forget I worked Vegas 19 years and I'm very familiar with the length of shows and how they're run. This is just longer than most. I actually make things happen in the show that are different so that we can have interest from not only the cast, but the audience. It can be a prison, and we all make our own prisons, but again I'm looking towards the future. I'll probably sing 5 or 6 years, and then I'm done. At the age of 53, I don't think I'll be singing anymore after I'm 60. I have other things I want to do with my life and particularly raise my boy. As we look towards that end, it doesn't become a grind. I kind of think about it each night.
Q: Will you then take a position as a behind-the-scenes guy in show biz?
A: No. When I'm through with the Lee Greenwood Theater, I won't do anything else in entertainment. Maybe I'll become an ambassador for the United States, maybe I'll get into television, some news anchoring or something in a major city. Certainly the visibility would interest me a little bit. But someplace that would allow me to sit still certainly.
Q: When people go to a theater such as yours, or Mickey Gilley's, or Glen Campbell's, they expect an autograph after the show or a Polaroid with the star. How did that whole thing get started? You wouldn't necessarily see a rock group signing autographs after a show.
A: The accessibility to the public generally is a concept of gospel and country artists, not of rock, pop stars. They make these very rare, taken from the Hollywood set, the movie industry, which is more aloof. We tend to be more accessible just because the nature of where our music comes from, and that is the rural areas of the country. It's a more friendly type of gesture that you give people all the time. In this particular show and most of my previous shows, I will say that I sign autographs, after every show, that was possible. It was about 4 or 5 years that I didn't meet the public because I was pretty much burnt out on it. But in this show, where I really want the people to come back an awful lot, the only days I do not sign autographs is matinee day, either show. I sign 4 days, and 2 days I do not.
Q: Who decided on this 1780 seat capacity of your theater? Was that you?
A: As we began to shrink the theater in size, we started with about 1,900 seats and there were some things we wanted to achieve inside. We actually went two and a half million dollars over cost and we put $300,000 more in production than we thought we were going to. As we got around to almost 1800 seats, we said let's actually design this to be 1776 seats for Mr. America, Mr. God Bless the U.S.A. And so, we did. And it came out exactly to that because of the handicapped sections and we split up the seats, so there could be just that many.
Q: Is it true you've never missed a performance wven when you had strep throat?
A: Yes and no. I've sung through many shows sick. It's a mark of true performer. I have missed three shows in my life, and I was just too sick to play.
Q: Did you like the road?
A: I loved the road. I didn't think there was anything wrong with touring as an act. I enjoyed singing for 200 people or 200,000, and I've been in those venues. There's certain thing you miss when you perform in a big venue, and that is the intimacy and there's a certain excitment you miss when you perform for a very small group. So, there's good and bad about inside and outside shows. You just try to get the best and make the best of what you currently have. In our theater now, I have state-of-the-art, but I look at the same walls everyday. They're beautiful. Don't get me wrong and the audience that comes in, is a different audience every night, so at least I have that challenge overcome. But, when we used to perform on the road, it was a different venue, a different face every night and I loved that. I loved the change of it.
Q: Where do you find employees for your theater that share the same drive for perfection and excellence that you have?
A: Well, it would be a true statement to say that everybody who works for me is a reflection of my own character. They would have to be an ambassador for me. Everybody that I hired for the stage I carefully picked so that they would do that, and they do. As far as front office goes, ticket clerks, ushers, parking attendants, reservationists, anybody who greets the public from my general manager on down, they were also screened to have some social skills and be able to talk to the public in a comfortable manner and reflect what I am as a person.
Q: You didn't start your career off wanting to be a country singer did you?
A: Well, I don't think I wanted to be anything. I have to say my career started much earlier than most, at least I would think so. At the age of 11 or 12, I was already playing professional jobs, making money. I was selling fruits and vegetables from my grandparents' farm to the local market, learning productivity and how to utilize my talents as a salesman. I gathered momentum in junior high school and high school as a musician because it came very easily, and I made money at it. I turned down two scholarships. One was as an athlete, the other as a musician. I didn't think I'd ever be a teacher, and I probably won't. I decided to go on the road early, and I went on the road at 17. I wanted to be that, only because it seemed the area of least resistance. I could've been a farmer. I could've been a contractor. Those things are all my family's work. I decided not to, but to pursue my own agenda, and goal.
Q: At one point, you were working as a blackjack dealer, and at night you were singing in the casinos. Why'd you work so hard?
A: Well, there were several reasons. The first of which is, I was getting divorced. I had two children by that wife, and I had a lot of bills. There were some medical expenses we had to pay off. That was the first reason. The second reason was I was actually looking at another profession. I was gaining in years. I was getting up to 33, 34 years old. Gaming was up my left hand. I know a lot of people in gaming. I thought let me see how it feels, maybe I could go ahead and end up a general manager, or a boss in the game business. Working around the clock certainly wasn't any fun. Then I discovered it wasn't much of a profession, and I didn't like it, so I got out of it.
Q: You were approached by Felix Cavaliere about joining The Young Rascals. Did that happen in Vegas?
A: Felix and I and Dino Danelli, the drummer for The Young Rascals, met in Vegas. They were touring with another act called Sandu Scott. That was probably a stage name, but she was a fine entertainer. She was touring across the United States and ended up in Vegas, and needed a couple of players, actually three of us joined the band. We went to Puerto Rico and then New York. Sandu got married and left us with a plane ticket home, because we were supposed to have played in Ed Sullivan Show and did not. The guys said stay in New Jersey, we're gonna put this act together. I played with them for a little bit and I said I really have a responsibility to my kids in Vegas, and I got to go. So, I left. Within 6 months, they had success.
Q: Any regrets?
A: Oh sure. I mean that close brush with success. I was very regretful that I hadn't stayed a little longer, and maybe had an influence in the group. It would have been an interesting thing to have my voice with that group, but I probably wouldn't have had my own initial solo success had I been with the group.
Q: Do you sell videos of your show in your theater, like Mickey Gilley does at his theater?
A: Mickey and I are real close friends, I was at his restaurant opening in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at Broadway on the Beach. Everybody has a different view of what they want to do. He told me it makes money for him to sell the videos. To me, it gives my show away. Years ago I had an offer from HBO to tape my road show for $25,000. I was working for that a night. I said I don't see that as any benefit to me, to show the whole nation what I am doing. They won't be coming to see me. I'm not gonna give my show away to anybody. I want them to come and see it and buy a ticket. The visitors here, the numbers already let me know that it's probably what will happen. Eventually, they'll come and see the show, because the show is gonna sell itself.
Editor's note: Gary James files his interviews from Syracuse, NY.