As he prepares to turn 82 on Jan. 12, William Lee Golden is still marching to the beat of his own tribal drum. The mountain-man-bearded baritone for the Grammy-winning Oak Ridge Boys has always stood out from his more tonsorial-tame bandmates, and spiritually, his personal belief system — derived from a deep, longstanding respect for Native American culture — marks him as a rare Music Row bird, as well. He can’t stop exploring new frontiers. After mastering oil painting, he jumped into nature photography and is recording several albums’ worth of classic country and gospel songs he grew up loving, backed by his three musician sons, Chris, Rusty and Craig. He plans to release them next year to coincide with the publication of his biography by Scot England. He recently wrapped a 29-date “Christmas in Tennessee Dinner Show” at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland that started on Thanksgiving.
What got you into Native American history and rituals? Do you have indigenous blood?
No, I don’t. I have a Jewish heritage, and my mother’s family came from Ireland. But my first wife was French, and she was part Creek. And then my third wife had some Cherokee in her. But I’ve just always had an interest in Native American culture, customs and ceremonies. And I’ve taken part in sweat lodges and purification ceremonies, where you purify all of the bad toxins out of you. I have medicine men friends, and our manager Jim Halsey’s wife practices a lot of this — she’s like a medicine woman. So it’s incredibly interesting. It’s an American culture that’s hidden from modern-day technology. And we forget that Native Americans have experienced a pandemic before. They were decimated by all the foreign disease that we brought to the shores of their country.
Finally, in a year when mankind is waging a suicidal war on nature, we’re consulting to indigenous cultures for environmental wisdom, with several Native Americans being elected into office.
In their teachings, they honor the four directions — North, South, East and West. And each direction represents a different symbol, like the mental, the emotional, the physical, and the spiritual. And sometimes we get running in one direction, and we get tilted off balance, like now when we’ve all been pushed in this one direction of isolation. So it’s important to stop and assess who we are and where we’re going at times. But I’ve been going through my own thing through this pandemic shutdown, following a vision I had to do this musical project with my sons. I wanted to take them back to my childhood, to all the old country, gospel and bluegrass songs that touched my life from when I sang as a little kid with my sister, Lanette.
It was an actual performing duo, right?
Yeah. I still have my old 1949 Gibson guitar that my dad bought for me that I was playing at 9 or 10, and he bought my sister a matching mandolin. And my granddaddy was a fiddle player, and he also had a radio show, and he had live music on there once a week. So we’d go over once a week and sing a song on that show, and from there we started singing in church and in other church events all over the country down there, just playing and singing as little kids. I grew up in southern Alabama, right on the Florida line, on a big cotton and peanut farm. And after working in the fields by day, we liked to play music and sing songs at night. So I’ve gone back and cut songs like “The Great Speckled Bird,” “The Long Black Veil” and Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.”