Recently, I had the chance to interview Southern Gospel songwriter Rusty Golden. Golden, son of longtime Oak Ridge Boys baritone William Lee Golden, performed Southern Gospel in his youth before spending a large portion of his career writing and performing pop, rock, and country music.
After he graduated from high school, he became the pianist for the Gatlin Brothers, and at age 19, he played piano on a #1 record they released. He recorded for ABC, Warner Brothers, CBS, and Capitol Records, and received his first gold record at age 24. He spent 15 years as a staff songwriter for major labels, five each with Warner Brothers, Universal, and EMI.
A few years ago, after surviving major complications from heart bypass surgery, he felt led to get back into writing Gospel music. Let’s let him pick up the story:
DJM: Could you tell us a little bit about your musical background?
Golden: I was born in Brewton, Alabama in 1959. My dad, William Lee Golden, joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1964, and we moved to Nashville. Right about ’64 is when the Beatles came out. At that point, I started picking up pencils and banging them on whatever I could. That lasted until I was 8, when I was getting pretty good on them! Then my parents bought me a cheap set of drums, and I got good on those. By the time I was 12, they bought me a really professional kit.
There was a time when I played drums for the Oak Ridge Boys; it was a for a couple of weekends in between the Tommy Fairchild / Tony Brown switch. Mark Ellerbee had come on board to play drums, but for a couple of weekends Mark would move over to the piano and I played drums.
Around 13 years old, I joined the Rambos. I didn’t drop out of school—this was a weekend and summer deal. To the best of my knowledge, this was at the peak of their career. They had all the big hits at that point.
Not many people remember these, but the Rambos would do huge package shows with the Stamps and the Oaks. They did a play called The Three Nails. For a whole tour, they went out and did mini-sets of their hits, maybe 30 minutes each group, all over the country. Then they would take an intermission and do a Passion play.
One thing that I remember is that my dad played the centurion with the story of the robe and all that stuff. It was wild to see Dottie Rambo, J.D. Sumner, and all these singers that I knew acting up on stage. Not many people know about that unless you were there back then, but it happened, and it was a wild thing.
It was years ahead of its time—the Hollywood costumes, the whole detail. It was not like a school play, it was really pro, especially for where they were at their career. A lot of these were at small theaters or civic centers, not huge arenas.
DJM: So would the groups sing music? Was it like a musical?
Golden: No, the groups didn’t sing during the play. It wasn’t a musical. The best I remember, there were no songs. There might have been pre-recorded music like thunder, but the best I remember no live music during the play.
DJM: Who played Jesus?
Golden: I talked with my dad about it the other day. Nobody portrayed Jesus—it was just manipulated with lights, shadows, sound effects, etc.
Best he could remember, as far as cast members, J.D. Sumner played the shopkeeper who actually sold the 3 nails for the crucifixion. I believe Dottie played mother Mary (but I am not 100% sure about this.)
Dad said all the props and costumes came from the Vanderbilt Drama Department, and the tour was about 6 months long.
I remember Mark Ellerbee coming from back of audience, running like a crazed maniac, a beggar guy. He would come through begging for alms. He would scare people! Some of it probably wasn’t Biblically accurate verse to verse, but he was dressed in burlap rags, and he was the true hippie-looking guy of the bunch, so he really did look the part!
Maybe this would be a fun thing for your readers to help you fill in the blanks—at least the ones who saw it! We’re talking around 1973 or so.
The part that sticks out most in my mind is my dad playing centurion. I was just thinking, “My dad is the centurion!”
DJM: Did he have the beard back then?
Golden: Oh, no. He didn’t start growing it till 1980.
DJM: Were you on any Rambos live projects?
Golden: I was on some TV tapings. I was watching the Dottie Rambo documentary that was put out. I did a few of the mock videos they would do for those Jubilee shows—I was watching several of those and saw myself.
As a matter of fact, I sang at Dottie Rambo’s funeral. It was called “The Homegoing Celebration,” the one where Gaither led the all-star choir. I sat in between Ronnie Booth and my old friend Greg Gordon, who used to date Reba when I was a kid. He is the son of Howard and Anna Gordon of the Chuck Wagon Gang. He sang with the Imperials when they were with Elvis. He was also a band member for the Oak Ridge Boys, the Rambos, and the Downings.
DJM: Were you on any of the Rambos’ live LPs?
Golden: No—they were pretty smart about that, they brought in session musicians. Later, in the 70s, they had a better band and used them on some live stuff. But when I played with them, it was just Buck, Dottie, Reba, who also played bass, me, and a piano player.
But when I was with them, they brought in session guys that had played on their Heartwarming hits, if it was what they called a “big Gig.”
DJM: How long were you with the Rambos?
Golden: One year—summer and weekends.
DJM: So how involved were you in Southern Gospel after leaving the Rambos?
Golden: Not at all. I actually did a few things—for instance, when I was 15, I went back down to live with my grandparents and finish school down there. At that time, the Singing News offices were in Pensacola, Florida. My grandmother—Dad’s mom—wrote a poetry corner in that magazine. For at least three years, every issue had something my grandma wrote. Anyhow, we went to the Singing News office. There was a lady, Jan Cain, who wrote a column for the magazine, “Then There’s Jan.” It was pretty much the gossip column. I to this day have up in my attic a scrapbook of the picture of me and my grandmother there at the Singing News office in Pensacola. That was probably about the end of my involvement in Southern Gospel.
About 14, I saw Elton John and decided I wanted to be a piano player. I was just at that age where he was catching on. I had grown up on the quartet sound, and there was some new music that definitely appealed to me. I never got into jazz, classical, heavy metal, I was really always on the pop side. Even when I was down on Music Row [in Nashville] startin’ in 1981 as a full-fledged staff writer, from 1981 until ’97, all those years, they’re expecting me to write country.
Country was changing, and I saw it. What I was writing wasn’t the thing back then—it’s what’s on the radio now. I was writing what Rascall Flatts or Keith Urban is doing now, not what Randy Travis was doing then. I had never lived that kind of life, and my heroes weren’t George Jones and Merle Haggard. My heroes were from Southern Gospel, and Elton John.
DJM: So what sparked the desire to return to Southern Gospel and start writing it again?
Golden: Jerry Salley and I have known each other since 1994. He’s a country and Gospel songwriter, lots of hit songs. He’s had 400 Gospel cuts, and he’s known as of late in Southern Gospel for “The Broken Ones.” Anyhow, I’ve held a songwriters festival every year since ’94—that’s when I met him. Anyway, every year, we promised each other that between now and next November, we’ve gotta get together and try to write.
That went on for 11 years. Then, I went in the hospital and had some surgery. When I came out, I was in a weird place, didn’t know what I should be doing. Maybe it was the Lord speaking to me—you know, that I needed to try something different.
Jerry was the first writing appointment I had after my operation. He came in and said, “What do you think about working on a Gospel song?”
I said. “Are you kidding me? It’s in my blood!”
All those years, nobody had brought that up. Had they, that’s just what I would have said to them. He was the one that said it.
Plus, I knew that the powers that be on Music Row just wouldn’t have pitched it in those days. Nowadays, after “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “Three Wooden Crosses,” they’d consider it.
Anyhow, Jerry said, “Man, this is not a killer title. It doesn’t jump out at you, but something about ‘John in the Jordan.’”
I said, “Well, let’s see what happens.”
We started working on the groove. I said, “Let’s base it on an I’ll Fly Away type of thing.” In the chorus, “I’ll Fly Away” is 1 – 1 – 2 – 1. I’ll Fly Away / I’ll Fly Away / another line / I’ll Fly Away. On “John in the Jordan,” we did 1 – 1 – 1 – 2.
He wrote the first verse. We did the chorus, and it was time to take a break and him go home.
I started thinking about that song, and started writing about my mother. She had just been baptized, so that second verse is totally about that, every word of it, My mother is deathly afraid of water, even getting her hair done at a salon just freaks her out. For her to be baptized under water was a true test of faith.
I called Jerry that night. I wrote the verse in 5 minutes, it just poured out. I called him said, “I’ve got the second verse, bud.” He said, “That sounds great! When can we get together and tidy up the ands and buts?”
We did that. Actually, the Freemans turned it down.
But here’s the miracle behind how it got cut. It was truly 1960s, when you hear something was cut one night, on the radio the next day. One night I heard that Gaither was in town over at Michael Sykes’ studio. I had to play down in Broadway that night. I had a copy of Jerry Salley singing the song with the Oaks. That was on a Monday night; from what I heard, Signature Sound was in the studio recording background vocals on Get Away Jordan, just finishing it up.
Anyhow, I got Gaither the tape. That was on a Monday night. Tuesday, I got a call and Bill wanted the song. Gaither had heard the song and told Signature Sound, “We’ve gotta bring the musicians back, you gotta cut this song, it’s the hit.” By Wednesday night, the song was cut. It happened that fast.
That just does not happen, I promise you! For them to be finished with an album, to bring musicians back that quickly was a miracle. The way the rest of it played out, from what I read in Singing News and the press releases, it entered the chart at #13, the highest debut on the chart of any Gospel Quartet single ever.
DJM: Then it went to #1.
Golden: Yeah, and the rest is history. People say history, I say His story. Put a capital H on that. It was truly a God thing. It showed me, Rusty, you’ve been beatin’ at it trying to be a pop/rock star, Music Row country songwriter, doing whatever you can to stay in the game – running as far as I could from what I grew up on, really.
I had seen and heard just terrible stuff back in the day. It was great, but then it got nasty. I watched how the Oaks were pushed out. Yeah, I’ll be the first to say they weren’t wearing matching outfits anymore, and they were letting their hair grow long, trying to look a little more hip. They were gaining a younger audience by doing so, but at the same time alienating their fellow groups. The hipper they started looking, the younger their crowds got. They could play colleges—the kids dug ’em! And they were singing Gospel songs.
But they took the Gospel to casinos, Russia (the first Gospel group to ever play that country), and places it had never been before. Remember, they were not singing anything but the Gospel at this time. I watched it happen, and watched them slowly but surely get pushed out. Man, there were a few years where they didn’t know what they were gonna do. And then the skies parted for their country thing. But here’s the thing—they’ve always been a Gospel quartet, they just sang different lyrics. When you ask those guys about their influences, they won’t name George Jones or Merle Haggard. They’ll all name Gospel singers. That’s what they came to Nashville to do—be Gospel singers.
DJM: So what are some songs you’ve written since John in the Jordan?
Golden: I had the idea to do “Gospel Road”; the Kingsmen cut it on their album When God Ran. I wrote what some critics called “cheesy” or “corny.” But I’ll take the blame (or credit), because I thought it was great. The Kingsmen did change a couple of words on that chorus. I was joined on that song by Jerry Salley and Jim McBride. Jim is well known for writing some of Alan Jackson’s most famous songs, including “Chattahoochie” and many more, but he is a Christian man, I’m telling you!
I’ve written four songs with Jerry and Jim. Another was “Between 12 and 33,” on the McKameys’ Something More. That was my title; we Googled to see if anyone had used it, but luckily not. I had just had this idea; nobody I know of had written a song about those years in Jesus’ life.
I had the idea for “Take it To the Cross,” on Legacy Five’s God’s Been Good. Jerry Salley and I were just talking one day about people having troubles. I said that what they need to do is take it to the Cross. Jerry looked up to me. It was the spark, and that was that.
We wrote down the title. We didn’t start on it that day, but the next time we got together, we started working on that one. It came easy. To tell you the truth, I’m tickled it got cut, but I think it’s a bigger song than being an album cut. [An album cut is a song that doesn’t get singled.] I mean print—hymnals—I want it to be a new millennium “Just as I Am,” I wanted it to be my version of an altar call. That’s probably been done who knows how many times, but that was the only song that I’ve got that is that.
The song’s producer, Steve Mauldin, just happens to play bass up at the church I go to. Speaking of my little church band, other members are legendary Gospel musicians as well—Nick Bruno on piano, Duke Dumas (Happy Goodmans) on guitar, and Garland Craft (Keystones, Oak Ridge Boys) on organ.
I knew that Steve had produced some Gospel stuff. I gave him a few songs and said, “If you hear anything you like…”
He called me and said, “I’m doing Legacy Five, can we do ‘Take it to the Cross’?”
He let me come in while they were doing tracks—I was not there while they did the vocals. Scott Fowler wasn’t there to sing the lead, but to guide the band and do the scratch vocal. I read a review about how they wish they let Scott Howard keep it all the way through, instead of modulating it higher. But, yes, Scott was doing the vocal.
DJM: Could you tell us the story behind “What Salvation’s Done For Me”?
Golden: I actually wrote the Booth Brothers fan club one day—didn’t know how to get in touch with them. I introduced myself and told them I had some songs I’d like to pitch. They said, “Send ’em!”
Next thing I got was an email from Ronnie, saying how he’d grown up on Dad. They park their bus a mile from my house. He asked where I lived. I said, “Man, next time you’re comin’ or leavin’, come by the house, we’ll meet each other and catch up.”
What Ronnie told me really surprised me—he said there’s never been a song like this in Southern Gospel. That just shocked me. I know he can’t be talking about the words, just because. It’s got to be the music and arrangement.
I thought it was their first single from Room For More, but from what I hear they had another one, “Welcome to the Family.” I read how they swept the Fan Awards—I’m hopin’ it’ll hold on for another year!
I wrote that one with Dianne Wilkinson. We’ve got something like 25 songs, and they’re just great—there’s not a weak one in there. Anyhow, on “What Salvation Means to Me”—I’d done about two or three different takes on that musically, working with the music with the lyric. She sent me the full lyric.
One night I woke up, went in my music room and started playing piano. I recorded it, and called her and said, “I’ve got something, but you’re not gonna like it.”
After the first verse, before I got to the chorus, she said, “I absolutely love it, it fits perfectly with the words!”
I was tickled. It was more Billy Joel style than not. Ronnie’s the one that told me it reminds him of a Billy Joel song because of Buddy Greene’s harmonica stuff.
“I Wanna Thank You,” the new one from Karen Peck & New River on their Ephesians 1 album, is also a true story that came about from me passing a sign comin’ home from Alabama. It was a tiny little homemade sign that had a station’s call letters and said something about an A.M. Gospel radio station.
I got to thinkin’ about that. What about people that drive by and see that sign. Maybe something leads ’em to turn it on, and something they heard on there changes their life.
And I got to thinkin’ about maybe like this big trucker seeing it, getting the radio on, changing his life. Then one of his main goals when he gets to Heaven is to find guys like the DJ and even the guy behind the booth running the board, and thank them for being there that night for that. I thought that was a neat story. Jerry loved it, but the more we got to thinkin’ about it, we said, “You know what, what if you make it about different people you want to thank, maybe it would be cooler, and maybe this truck thing is another song.”
I used true things, from the first thing to the last. The only thing we made up was the Greyhound bus line. On the second verse, the lady who works at the grocery store, she was a real lady who would always say, “God Bless You”—but we changed the name because Kroger just don’t sing as well!
The last line of the verse is my dad’s mom and dad, my grandparents. God rest their soul, they woke up every morning and every night on their knees, no quick deal, could go for 30 minutes. That’s not counting the three before meals, honest to goodness. They were God-fearing people, holiness Pentecostal, even no TV. I had to put them in the song. My grandmother recently passed away, so that last line is real life, too.
DJM: Are there any songwriters you really look to as an influence when you’re writing Gospel music?
Golden: Dottie, no doubt. Albert Brumley and Stamps-Baxter Music is what I heard when I was a little boy, but for what’s goin’ on now, my life these days, she was just a genius to me. As far as an R&B style, Andraé Crouch, no doubt.
But I say those because those are the ones I know. Until I got with Dianne, I didn’t know what “Boundless Love” was!
DJM: So is there any overall goal you have, other than just writing good songs?
Golden: Someone told me that most Southern Gospel buyers are over 65. I thought, “What can I do to make younger folks say, ‘Hey, this is great stuff!’?”
When I started hearing “Jesus Take the Wheel” on the big CCM stations, I was thinking I wanna do something like that—take what some call an antiquated style and maybe make more people like it.
Bottom line…I’m just trying my best to lead folks to the Lord, one song at a time.