By Phil Sweetland
The summer is always an ideal time for country artists to perform patriotic songs, with Memorial Day and July 4 getting the season off to a red, white, and blue start.
And with the thrilling, successful Navy SEALS mission to take out Osama Bin Laden on May 1, chants of “U-S-A,” “U-S-A,” have rung out from coast to coast. If you add patriotic songs to your set, perhaps a cover of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA,” or Ray Charles’s “America The Beautiful,” they’re bound to get the crowd at your fairs and festivals energized.
And you can rest assured that as artists plan their set lists for the CMA Music Festival this month, they’re planning to do just that.
Besides, if you’re a writer or publisher, could you or one of your writers be the one to write the song that becomes 2011’s smash patriotic hit? You know someone’s going to do it. So who knows? Maybe that someone will be you or a writer who works for you.
It’s been a long time since Americans had a whole lot to celebrate, and Bin Laden’s death gave all of us a chance to briefly forget the problems of a shaky economy, high unemployment, brutal gas prices, tornadoes, and other hardships.
Successful country artists and country stations have always managed to capture the mood of the nation. Country radio programmers who are good at their jobs do likewise. Why do you think so many of them, for instance, only play Christmas music from Thanksgiving to New Year’s each winter?
Greenwood’s self-written “God Bless The USA” first charted in May 1984, and later that summer the single peaked at No. 7. That was Lee’s peak period, with 15 Top singles at radio between 1983 and 1988, including seven Billboard No. 1s.
But if you study the charts, you’ll remember that Lee’s updated version of “God Bless The USA” impacted radio again. This time, the song debuted on the Billboard charts Sept. 29, 2001—less than three weeks after 9/11—and that year, the single peaked at No. 16.
The country song everyone remembers from the post-9/11 period, Alan Jackson’s self-written sad and bittersweet “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” impacted radio immediately after AJ debuted the new song at the CMA Awards. It went on to spend five weeks at No. 1, and earned a Grammy and both the CMA Single and Song of the Year prizes the following year.
Toby Keith also captured the nation’s mood at that time with 2002’s uptempo No. 1 hit “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue (The Angry American).” Given the triumphant feeling now, that might make a wonderful cover by other touring artists this summer.
AJ and Toby felt something back then, and they put it into words and music. Other Music Row songwriters will do the same this summer, and hopefully country radio will be sharp enough to spin some of their songs.
This is a rare time in American history, and such periods often tend to produce the greatest music. One of the tragedies of war is how many unforgettable songs come during wartime, from the very first No. 1 song on the first-ever Billboard country chart in 1944, during World War II. That song was “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters. During the Vietnam War, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was a surprise breakout hit. That’s the classic one that begins: “Silver wings/upon their chest/These are men/America’s best . . . “
One of the best-loved American patriotic songs is “God Bless America,” written by Irving Berlin, the legendary tunesmith who also penned “White Christmas.” For Harlan Howard, the classic country tunesmith of hits such as “Heartaches By The Number” and co-writer of “I Fall To Pieces” with Hank Cochran, Berlin’s “White Christmas” was a towering achievement. Harlan used to marvel at how this Christmas favorite was written by Berlin, a Jewish man who didn’t celebrate Christmas.
Like countless country cuts, “God Bless America” had a long history before radio and fans ever heard it. Berlin originally wrote it in 1918 during World War I for a show, but deleted it and nearly forgot about the song for 20 years. In 1938, Irving brought “God Bless America” out of mothballs and gave it to the larger-than-life singer Kate Smith. Kate’s version first hit the Billboard chart in April 1939, and it’s been an American classic ever since.