The bond goes way back. For as long as there has been country music, the genre’s stars have displayed a deep connection with America’s men and women in uniform.
Often, singers show their appreciation for our soldiers and the freedoms they protect in the best way they know how—through their songs. During World War II, Red Foley sang about a mother’s banner hung in the window to honor her soldier son in “There’s A Blue Star Shining Bright.” In the Vietnam era, Merle Haggard admonished anti-war folks to appreciate those fighting for their country in “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Later, the 9/11 attacks of 2001 inspired a flurry of songs, from Toby Keith’s blustery “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (Angry American),” to Alan Jackson’s poignant “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”
And more recently, Tim McGraw (“If You’re Reading This”), Trace Adkins (“Arlington”) and Big & Rich (“8th of November”) have inspired us to take pause and remember the sacrifices of our soldiers.
Many stars, such as Kellie Pickler, who has participated in seven USO tours, do more than write and sing songs. They take their music directly to the troops. “It was completely life-changing,” says Pickler, recalling her first USO tour to Kuwait and Iraq. “There are so many things we take for granted. When you are spending Christmas with servicemen and women who are missing their kids, wives, husbands or friends back home, and it’s been 18 months for some of them, it just really puts things into perspective.”
Leading the list of artists who’ve either traveled to foreign countries or performed stateside at military bases for the USO is Toby Keith, who has made over a dozen overseas trips since 2003, performing everywhere from installations in the Middle East to the deck of the U.S. Navy’s USS Enterprise.
Another standout is Tim McGraw, who along with Kip Moore performed in the USO’s 2012 Memorial Day Live From The Homefront concert in New York City that kicked off McGraw’s partnership with Chase and Operation HomeFront, an initiative that has provided more than 100 mortgage-free homes to servicemen and women in need.
Other stars dedicated to thanking our troops in person include Trace Adkins, Carrie Underwood, Chris Young, Charlie Daniels, Aaron Tippin, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and former soldier- turned-country singer Craig Morgan, who has never waivered in his dedication to his fellow servicemen and servicewomen.
“During my first USO tour in Iraq in 2002, I was still in the active reserves,” Morgan recalls. “We were doing a show in Kandahar [Afghanistan] and a Special Forces soldier came up to me and said, ‘You don’t know me but we had a mutual friend.’ He gave his name and I said, ‘Yeah, he was killed out here.’ He said, ‘Before every flight and after every mission, he played us your music.’ It was heart wrenching.”
As long as there are soldiers, they can count on country stars to sing songs about them, and for them. That’s because country music and the military have always stood on common ground. “America, Americana and patriotism,” says Morgan. “We sing about and celebrate that lifestyle and the freedoms we have.”
For more information about the USO, visit uso.org.
Craig Morgan: Soldier and Singer
Craig Morgan, known for hits including “That’s What i love about Sunday” and “Wake Up lovin’ You,” has spent nearly half his life in the U.S. army, serving with the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions in panama, during operation Desert Storm, and later, as an air assault instructor in South Korea. When he left to pursue music full time in 2000, he’d reached the rank of Staff Sergeant, promotable to Sergeant first class.
Fittingly, it was during a 2008 concert for troops at fort Bragg, N.C., that singer John Conlee invited him to join the Grand ole opry. Morgan, who is also host of the outdoor channel’s Craig Morgan: All Access Outdoors, has completed 12 USO tours to Iraq and Afghanistan and visited other countries, including Guam, Japan and Germany. “i can’t tell you how many soldiers have come up to me and said, ‘man, thank you so much. This will get me through the rest of my tour.’ it is not something i take lightly.”
They Were Soldiers
Maybe the country music-military connection is so strong because many singing stars-to-be actually served in the U.S. armed forces before hitting it big on the charts. Here are several military men who went on to march in the country hit parade.
Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash
Kris Kristofferson and George Strait
Josh Gracin, Jamey Johnson and George Jones
James Otto and Johnny Paycheck