Alabama People: William Lee Golden
By Allison Griffin
This Oak Ridge Boy still going strong
He’s been a performer for more than 50 years, but now William Lee Golden is indulging in a passion that takes him out of the spotlight and puts him behind the artist’s brush and photographer’s lens.
Golden is the longtime baritone for the Oak Ridge Boys, the iconic country and gospel group that continues to make new music today. He joined the group in 1965, and except for a nine-year break in the 1980s and early 1990s, he’s been a part of the Boys’ lineup. They still perform about 160 shows a year, and show no signs of slowing down.
But Golden, 78, is perhaps most passionate now about painting and photography, hobbies he took up about 15 years ago to help him fill the time while out on tour. He was inspired by much of the American landscape he saw on the road. “I love landscapes and traveling and seeing all these beautiful places.”
The Pensacola Museum of Art has had a showing of his artwork, and the Pensacola airport has exhibited some of his photography. He’s even sorting through his photos to compile a coffee table book.
He’s also embraced social media as an outlet for his works, and has followings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “I use that as an outlet to get a feedback and response for how certain photos affect an audience,” he says.
Besides his active career and hobbies, he’s also found joy in his personal life. He married longtime friend Simone De Staley in 2015, and they make their home in Hendersonville, Tenn., near Nashville.
But Golden hasn’t forgotten his roots in Brewton, Ala. The father of four sons, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren talked with Alabama Living about his life and what’s ahead. – Allison Griffin
Talk about your upbringing in south Alabama.
I was born and raised south of Brewton. Our family farm was there, right on the Alabama-Florida line. My dad was a big cotton and peanut farmer.
I lived there until I was out of school and married and working at a paper mill down in Brewton. I grew up on that big farm, and that’s actually where I learned about singing and playing music.
My sister and I would play and sing. She played mandolin, and I played guitar. We’d sing in church. My Granddaddy Golden was a fiddle player and had a radio show. Once a week, my sister and I would get to go over and do a song on Granddaddy’s radio show. We would play at churches, high school assemblies. We were always playing and singing, my sister and I.
I still go back home to Brewton to visit my family. My sister is still there, around the family farm. My sister also has a house on Lake Martin, and sometimes we’re able to meet there. My brother is in Atlanta and has a beach house down in Florida.
For the early part of the Oak Ridge Boys’ career, you were a gospel group. Is gospel still a part of who you are as a group?
That’s true. I’d say an hour, an hour and 15 minutes into our show, we go back and revisit our roots for two or three songs some nights, at least a song or two every night. It’s something we do because of our love for what we do. It’s where we got our start. Our families feel close to that music, too.
What helps you stay healthy?
I’ve kind of made it a habit to keep up my physical condition and stay active and healthy. I enjoy going out and walking four or five miles. Workouts always make me feel better. Now, every day when I’m on the road, I sit in the floor and I do like 100 situps every day. Sometimes I’ll do 125. It really helps me sing so much better. It’s so much easier to sing when I’m in shape.
Are the Oak Ridge Boys working on new music?
We’re scheduled to go into the studio in July with David Cobb, who we’ve worked with before. We met him through Shooter Jennings, when we sang a song with him. David is the hottest producer in Nashville right now. Chris Stapleton is his artist. Some other young acts that he’s had are breaking big too.
Do you find at your concerts that you have generations of fans?
We do. That’s the great thing about what we do. Joe (Bonsall, tenor of the group) mentions that sometimes on stage. There are these kids down there singing our songs. He’ll say, ‘These were way before you were born. How do you know these songs?’ It’s from their grandmother playing records, or their granddad’s 8-tracks. The grandmother will come to the show, the daughter and the granddaughter. So we’ve been kind of passed down in the family.