While Memorial Day commemorates those who died in active military service, it's become a bright beacon of pride for our great nation in upholding the admiration and respect for millions of men and women who have served in our prestigious U.S. military. However, in recent years it has also become a day of reflection for the long line of those who served and continue to serve for our freedoms — many of which also include country music stars.
Country music icons like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Elvis Presley, and Kris Kristofferson served and later performed for the servicemen and women after hitting it big. Jamey Johnson, James Otto, Josh Gracin, and Craig Morgan are other country singers who have served. Dozens of other celebrities have also been members of the Armed Forces.
"I was in the Air Force a while and they had what they call 'policing the area,'" Nelson once said of his time in the military. "That's where you looked around and if there's anything wrong here, there, anywhere, you took care of your own area. And I think that's a pretty good thing to go by. If everyone just takes care of their own area then we won't have any problems. Be here. Be present. Wherever you are, be there. And look around you and see what needs to be changed."
Here's a look at six country stars who served their country.
Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson served in the Air Force after he left high school, notes Military.com. He enlisted in 1950, but was only a member for nine months. He was medically discharged because of back problems. According to a Rolling Stone profile, Nelson then considered a business career, even attending Baylor University. However, he decided to return to music and met his first of four wives, Martha Matthews. Their marriage ended in 1962.
Even though Nelson's time in the military was brief, he has still donated his time to veterans causes, supporting Operation Firing For Effect and other groups.
Johnny Cash also served in the U.S. Air Force. He served from 1950 until 1954, when he was honorably discharged. He served overseas in Germany.
"It was like imprisonment," Cash said of his time in the Air Force in a 2001 interview. "I was locked there on that base, three years without a furlough to come home. The only way they would have let me come home was if there had been a death in my immediate family. I was not only isolated from my loved ones, but there was nowhere to go, no one to reach out to."
George Strait might not have had a country music career were it not for his time in the military in the early 1970s. As Taste Of Country notes, Strait was in the U.S. Army from 1971 to 1975, spending his last two years in Hawaii. He played in Rambling Country, a band sponsored by the Army. They also played off their base as Santee. When he left the Army, he was already an experienced stage performer.
"Well, I was in the service and I just for some reason got it in me that I could sing. I thought that I could possibly make a career out of singing. So, I went and bought a guitar. I was in the Army at the time, I was stationed in Hawaii," Strait said in a 1982 interview. "I started learning songs, and I learned enough where I could get a band together. The last year I was in the service, that's what I did for the Army...I sang country music."
Singer Jamey Johnson is best known for his hits "The Dollar" and "In Color." Johnson served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1993 to 2003. He even mentioned his service on his first album. “I’m very proud to have served in the Marines,” he told CMT in 2010. “I respect the Marines. They gave me guidance and stability. I’d wake up every day and have a purpose.”
George Jones, another Country Music Hall of Famer, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1951, notes The Associated Press. He served for three years before he was discharged. The following year, he began his recording career and had his first big hit with 1966's "Why Baby Why."
"I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That's what country music is about," Jones, who died in 2013, told the AP in 1991. "My fans and real true country music fans know I'm not a phony. I just sing it the way it is and put feeling in it if I can and try to live the song."
Photo: Robin Jones / Christopher Polk / Ethan Miller, Getty Images
Elvis Presley might have had his first No. 1 single with "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956 and well onto his way to fame with a No. 1 self-titled record and movie, Love Me Tender. But the following year, he was inducted into the Army, serving in Friedburg, Germany, for about 18 months. It was there that he famously met Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he later married in Las Vegas.
Naturally, being the heartthrob that he was, the world collectively screamed when his famous locks had to shaved off. Presley at the time commented, "Hair today, gone tomorrow," later admitting in an interview with the Armed Forces Radio and Television that it was all quite funny. "Actually, that's the only way it could be. People were expecting me to mess up, to goof up in one way or another. They thought I couldn't take it and so forth, and I was determined to go to any limits to prove otherwise, not only to the people who were wondering but to myself."