If there were awards presented for pandemic productivity, William Lee Golden would definitely be a major contender. The 82-year-old country legend penned his life story in the newly published book Behind the Beard, recorded a new album with the Oak Ridge Boys, Front Porch Singin’, releasing June 11, and has recorded three albums of new material with his eldest sons Chris, Craig and Rusty.
“The pandemic really allowed us to do this,” Golden tells Sounds Like Nashville. “It forced us to be shut in and forced us all out of work. We all lost every gig we had, but it became the perfect time to do this.”
Sitting in his historic home, flanked by sons Chris and Rusty, sunshine pours through the windows as Golden discusses his latest projects. “This was built in 1786,” he says of the stately brick home, which was built by Revolutionary War Captain James Franklin. “We’ve lived here 41 years now.”
In his book, Golden admits that sharing his life story felt like getting naked in front of the world, and jokes that he probably shouldn’t have waited until he was 82 to do it. “Scot is the one that approached me about this,” he says of collaborating with writer Scot England. “He had asked me about over a 10-year period. When I’d see him, he’d say, ‘You know, I’d really like to write a book on you.’ I said, ‘Who would buy a book on me? Man, I’m just a baritone singer.’ But he said he felt like I had a story to tell, and he wanted to be the one to help me tell it. So I said, ‘You can ask what you want. What it is is what it is and I’m not trying to hide who I am or my mistakes or anything I’ve done.’”
Behind the Beard includes more than 200 never-before-seen photos and Golden reveals his life in great detail sharing everything from the reason he grew his iconic beard to why he was away from the Oaks for nine years and what prompted his return. Surprisingly candid, he also shares his first wife’s reaction to his cheating and how she had his girlfriend come to their house and hide in a closet. Imagine his surprise when she came out and both women confronted him.
To get such detailed accounts, England interviewed many of the key people in Golden’s life including his fellow Oak Ridge Boys Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall and Richard Sterban, former Oak Little Willie Wynn, Nashville producer Tony Brown, longtime manager Jim Halsey and Golden’s first wife Frogene, his high school sweetheart with whom he had three sons. In the book, each of their reminiscences are included as first-person accounts and are a powerful part of Behind the Beard. The brutally honest book begins with his humble childhood in tiny Brewton, AL, chronicles his rise with the Oak Ridge Boys and their transition from gospel music success to country super stardom as well as Golden’s sometimes tumultuous love life.
“Scot interviewed each person and I told him, ‘Hey ask anybody anything you want to. There’s nothing off limits.’ I’m man enough to admit all I’ve done, good and bad,” Golden shares. “It gets into my unfaithfulness in life. I’ve been married four times now. Each one of their pictures are in there. It’s what my story is. All the problems that I’ve had have been basically my doing or my own fault, so in life you sometimes you’ve got to pay for your sins.”
England interviewed Frogene last year before she lost her battle with cancer. She and Golden had long ago mended their rift and were good friends when she passed. “Scott talked to Frogene and was able to sit with her and get the real story from her of what went down and all that, and the book would not have made it without her story.”
Frogene’s death was heartbreaking for the whole family, but Golden says making music eased the pain. “It’s been a healing thing for all of us to make music together while all this was going on,” he says. “While going to visit Frogene [I was] talking to Rusty about songs and keys and things that he worked with me a lot on pre-production and all this stuff that we did. She was overhearing our conversations and she knew what my plans were, that I said, ‘I’m serious about making some music with my sons again.’”
Music has always been an integral part of the Golden family, and it became even more special as they were grieving. “After they lost their mother and went through that sad time, this is what helped us heal, making music again and singing our way out of all of this pandemic and the loss,” Golden says. “And it was when I got back in the car from the gravesite for Frogene and Craig was driving us, I picked my phone up and looked at it and saw that Charlie Daniels passed. That was the day I found out, just as soon as I walked away from the gravesite and got in the car. It was such a loss but I have found the healing where music has helped heal my spirits and soul.”
Pouring himself into music, Golden recorded three albums featuring his sons. The Old Country Church is an album of gospel classics. Vintage Classic Country is the title of the traditional country collection, and the aptly named Pop & Country Rock features some of their favorite tunes. Billing themselves as William Lee Golden and the Goldens, they plan to release the new music later this summer.
“We had never really recorded ourselves. When we toured together before, they were recording separate. I was recording separate,” he says. “They would back me up when I would perform, but they weren’t on the actual records, well now I wanted to bring it all and let’s all get in here together.”
Chris and Rusty recorded as a duo, The Goldens, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, first on Epic Records and then on Capitol. Since then, both have continued to write songs, tour and record solo projects. Rusty was awarded the Southern Gospel Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year honor and scored Song of the Year awards for “I Want to Thank You” by Karen Peck & New River and “What Salvation’s Done for Me” by the Booth Brothers. Previously a member of the Oak Ridge Boys Band, Chris has also performed with Restless Heart and Alabama and has released eight solo albums. He was named 2019 Entertainer of the Year at the Inspirational Country Music Awards. Though his dad and brothers praise him as immensely talented, brother Craig has never pursued a career as a performer. He’s currently driving the tour bus for Jimmie Allen.
On the new recordings, the family voices blend and the shared history gives a special feel to the project. “Us blending as father and sons, it’s amazing the harmonies we got,” Golden says. “It’s just a blessing. I’ve found so much comfort in the music. It’s been healing mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and I can feel the effect of what these guys have put in. They’ve poured their hearts and souls into this music… Some of them they’ve never heard. These [are] songs that I was bringing to the table back from my childhood.”
They recorded the project at Ben Isaacs studio, working with Isaacs, a noted producer and member of the award-winning family gospel group The Isaacs and also collaborating with Michael Sykes and Buddy Cannon. Golden credits Cannon for suggesting some of the songs. “Buddy Cannon came out on all the country and country rock stuff we did,” Golden says of the veteran producer, known for his work with Kenny Chesney and Willie Nelson, among others. “He recommended ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ and he also recommended we sang a Johnny Cash song ‘I Still Miss Someone.’ I sat on the front porch with him and I played him the gospel stuff we all did together and I told him I was getting ready to go in and do this country stuff and wanted his advice. He said, ‘What about “Long Black Veil?” That’s an old Lefty Frizzell song.’ So there’s three songs on there that Buddy Cannon brought to the table as well as just being there hanging, but we have four producers in there plus Chris.”
The family patriarch lends his distinctive lead vocals to “I Still Miss Someone,” Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls,” Porter Wagoner’s “Green Green Grass of Home” and a particularly affecting rendition of Ray Price’s classic “For the Good Times.” Rusty takes lead on Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” and the John Denver classic “Take Me Home Country Roads.” Chris sings lead on Tom Petty’s “Southern Accent” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Craig makes his recording debut singing lead on the Gregg Allman song “Multi-Colored Lady.”
“Craig has always had a great singing voice and his brothers were always so talented in music he felt like he was over shadowed,” Golden says. “He was shy about it and I understand that.”
There are also members of the next generation of Goldens performing on the new albums with Chris’ son Elijah and daughters Elizabeth and Rebekah contributing their talents. “Elizabeth is playing fiddle on some of it,” he says with a smile. “Also her and her sister Rebekah are singing on ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ so it was dad, me and the two girls.”
Elijah sings lead on “Stand By Me” and “Elvira” and duets on “Bobbie Sue.” “I’ve been a fan of his talents since he was a little boy. It’s something that’s always come pretty easy for him,” he says of Elijah, who just graduated high school and is headed to Brown University in the fall. “He’s got two older sisters that sing great and like us when we were growing up, they’ve always had instruments around the house. They were always playing. He’s pretty self-taught on keyboards and guitar and he’s turned into a great singer. To hear him singing with all of us behind him is a pretty cool thing. It seems pretty natural to me because anytime we ever got together for family events, we always wound up around the piano playing and singing. My daughter started calling it Fam Jam a few years ago.”
In addition to family singalongs, the Golden boys remember William Lee taking them to concerts when he wasn’t on the road himself. “I’d take them when they were teenagers. We’d go to rock and roll shows. Chris said when I took them to see Kansas it was the first time he ever smelled pot,” Golden recalls with a grin. “When Rusty saw Elton John, he went from being a drummer all at once he wanted to learn how to play the piano, and what happened was being a drummer, having the rhythm and right on time, when he started playing piano it gave him that power and dynamics to play it like a rhythm instrument basically and he played it with power.”
Rusty has great memories of those early concerts when they saw legends in the making. “We’re talking about the era when Billy Joel was playing the War Memorial,” Rusty says of the iconic Nashville venue. “There were big acts that were playing for 2500 [people] because they weren’t the superstars they would eventually become.”
Though they learned from seeing other bands, the biggest influence was always their dad. “We’ve learned too many good lessons. I don’t know if there’s a most important one, but there’s a lot of good ones,” Chris says.
“Stay single,” Rusty adds with a laugh.
As for continuing the family’s musical journey together, there will likely be more to come. Since the three new albums are all cover songs, Chris and Rusty would like to get back in the studio with dad and record some originals.
“It’s a feeling when we’re all playing and singing together,” Golden says. “Their music is just something that I’ve missed. It feeds my soul when I’m involved with these guys making music. It’s a fulfilling that’s hard to describe and it’s more than just a father/son thing to me. These guys are talented. I’m blessed as a father and I’m blessed that they would come back together with me and let me take them down these old roads that I’ve been down and recreate some of my life down these old dirt roads.”