There’s a raspy edge to his voice, a rough bevel cut by long nights onstage in the smoke-filled rooms of Las Vegas. For singer-songwriter Lee Greenwood, 41, that baritone burr may soon be the last reminder of nearly 20 years in the Nevada desert. This month, when the slight, wiry entertainer stepped onstage in Nashville to accept the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year Award, his past days as a longtime lounge singer and sometime card dealer seemed to be fading faster than a Vegas crapshooter.
Propelled by the Top 10 success of Somebody’s Gonna Love You, the title song off his second album, Greenwood managed to beat out CMA vocalist rivals Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs and John Anderson. (Janie Fricke was named Female Vocalist of the Year.) A Nashville unknown just two years ago, he is now in TV and radio ads across the U.S. hawking Coors beer and McDonald’s burgers and in movie theaters singing on the sound track to Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.
To capitalize on his sudden shift in fortunes, Greenwood now spends 280 days a year on the road with his 13-person band and crew, often working as an opening act for Barbara Mandrell, Loretta Lynn, the Oak Ridge Boys and others. “Now I’m planning my career six months at a time and signing dates only three months in advance,” he says happily. “I just can’t make commitments too far in the future anymore. It would hurt me. I’m counting on ‘main attraction’ status in 1984.”
That it would happen at all has looked like a long shot for most of his life. The only child of a broken marriage, Melvin Lee Greenwood was raised by his grandparents on a chicken farm near Sacramento and admits growing up “naive, unhip, even a little square.” After teaching himself guitar, sax, piano and bass, he left home on the day of his high school graduation and joined a band in Las Vegas. Within a year he had married, and by 21 he was a divorced father of two.
After five years in Vegas, Greenwood managed to sign on with Paramount Records, and in 1971 he headed for Los Angeles to launch his recording career. Unfortunately, the company was phased out in a merger, and Greenwood was stranded with a second wife and two more kids. He found work as a fry cook at Dixie Chicken, picked up odd musical jobs and eventually made his way back to Las Vegas. Faced with $10,000 in debts, he worked days as a casino blackjack dealer and nights as a singer-guitarist in a lounge revue. The killer schedule saved him from bankruptcy but ultimately cost him marriage No. 2.
In 1978 Greenwood was spotted by Larry McFaden, then Mel Tillis’ bandleader, who offered him a songwriting contract and urged him to come to Nashville. Greenwood refused to relocate for three years, insisting that he was “an artist as well as a songwriter. I told them if they didn’t find me a record label, the deal was off.” Finally, in 1981, MCA Records gambled on Greenwood, and the then-38-year-old performer headed East to make one more try at recording. Within months the card dealer turned country boy had moved up the charts with It Turns Me Inside Out, followed by She’s Lying and Ring on Her Finger, Time on Her Hands. Kenny Rogers, meanwhile, had made a hit out of Lee’s A Love Song.
Concert tours keep Greenwood rolling at least five days a week now, but off the road he shares a six-bedroom home near Opryland with third wife Melanie, 31, a choreographer for cable TV’s Nashville Network, and teenagers Marc and Kelly, products of his second marriage. “It’s not anything elaborate,” he says of the modest ranch-style home, “but it’s more than I ever hoped for.” So, too, of course, is what’s happened to Greenwood in the past two years. With his third album due in February and memories of Las Vegas dimming, the former blackjack dealer now just hopes he can keep his hot streak alive.