With the sound of helicopters flying overhead, the country singer Lee Greenwood took a phone call Thursday afternoon while standing backstage at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Greenwood, best known for his patriotic anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.,” was being wrangled by producers in anticipation of his afternoon gig an hour later as part of the pre-inaugural "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" at the Lincoln Memorial.
If Greenwood didn’t sound nervous, it’s because he’s done this before. The veteran hitmaker, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Sacramento, has performed during inaugurations of every Republican president since Ronald Reagan.
“It never gets old,” he said of playing his flagship song during historic occasions.
“Since I wrote it in 1983, there have been so many moments when the song has assisted not just me but the country,” Greenwood added about a song that he estimates took him half an hour to write.
Twanging beside Greenwood during the performance was fellow country singer Tim Rushlow. It was his first gig at a presidential inauguration, as part of the trio the Frontmen of Country with Lonestar singer Richie McDonald and Larry Stewart of Restless Heart.
If for Greenwood this was old hat, Rushlow sounded positively giddy about his time in the nation’s capital. Both, however, stressed that when invited to perform neither hesitated to accept despite the fact that the country had just endured a rather divisive campaign and a number of major artists were reported to have shunned invites to the inaugural festivities.
“This is the highest seat in the land and I need to support that,” Rushlow said on the phone from his Washington hotel Thursday evening. “The fact that Donald Trump is going to be president is a fact, and I need to be supporting him and wanting the best for my country.”
A number of famous musicians felt differently. Those reported to have declined invitations include Elton John, KISS, Garth Brooks, Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion.
Rushlow said he has friends and fans who were disappointed in him, but for him it was a higher calling. “I don’t come to this with any political affiliation,” he said, describing himself as an American first.
He added, “Someone asked me today — they called me on the carpet and said, ‘What would you do if Hillary Clinton was elected?’ I said, ‘Well, if Hillary Clinton had called me and asked me to be a part of this event, my answer would be absolutely, yes.’”
For Rushlow, a bigger spotlight was still on the horizon. He and his big band, which performs classics from the American Songbook, were slated on Friday to appear at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and be, in Rushlow’s words, “large and in charge at the Freedom Ball and giving President Trump and the first lady their first dance.”
The singer, who was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas, said that in December a member of Trump’s inaugural team saw his band perform. According to Rushlow, the official said he was looking to do something “that’s not about A-listers or anything — no insult to you.' I said, ‘None taken — I’m not J-Lo.'"
They extended an invitation to be the house band at the gala. In addition, they had a second request: Would he and his band accompany the president and first lady during their first dance?
Rushlow committed on the spot: “I said I would be honored.”
Earlier in the week Greenwood had his own brush with Trump, he said as a bugle playing “Taps” at the Lincoln Memorial echoed in the background.
On Wednesday Greenwood met Trump backstage at the National Portrait Gallery during a fundraising dinner in honor of his choice for vice president, Mike Pence. The singer and the soon-to-be president chatted for a second.
“He said he was thankful that we were there,” Greenwood recalled, “and told me that he likes my music.”
Greenwood and his wife took a photo with Trump, who, Greenwood added, “was also taking pictures with a lot of the military who were there, and I commended him for that. I think it’s just terrific that the president would immediately embrace the military for their sacrifices.”
Despite the polarizing election and protests, Greenwood, who sits on the board of the government-financed National Council for the Arts, said he isn’t worried that his famous song will get mired in partisan politics.
“It’s never happened before and I think this will be the same thing,” he said. “This was a difficult election — different from ever before — and the presence of social media made it even more complicated. But ‘God Bless the U.S.A.,’ like ‘America the Beautiful’ — these are songs that are in the American fiber. Like many other American songs, it adds to the pride of the country, and hopefully will add some unity to it.”
Greenwood did have one request for the incoming administration: to continue to invest in the arts.
“It does an awful lot of good,” Greenwood said of federal funding for the arts. Many have voiced concerns regarding government funding of the arts under a Trump administration.
“It provides a groundwork for artists to build their careers and acknowledges people who are skilled in their line of work, whether it’s a poet, a dancer, a writer — any kind of artist.”