In the course of a dozen songs, he retraces many of the key ﬁgurative steps in a life’s journey. The travel references are obvious in the title track, “Gospel Road” and “Wide River To Cross.” They’re more subtle in the restless train imagery of “God Knows What” and “I Want To Thank You,” a tribute to people met along the pathway. And travel is referenced obliquely in the “Sweet Bye And Bye,” a classic hymn often associated with the body’s ﬁnal destination.
“I always thought I would do a gospel project one day,” Golden says. “I can’t ever remember not wanting to. I cut my teeth on Southern gospel music. It was the ﬁrst music I heard as a child, and the foundation for the sound that has evolved into what I play and sing today.”
Appropriate for an album loaded with travel themes, he recorded the bulk of the project on the road with The Oak Ridge Boys, cutting the drums and piano through the soundboard at concert halls, layering the guitars and mandolins in hotel rooms and dressing rooms, and adding the background vocals in a spare bedroom at his home in Middle Tennessee.
Sunday Shoes is loaded with meaningful guest appearances. Bluegrass stalwart Ronnie McCoury plays mandolin on “Higher Power”; vocalists Chris and Darrell Freeman, of the Pentecostal group The Freemans, check in on “A Different Light”; Ben Isaacs on upright bass; and Greg Gordon – who’s sang with The Rambos, The Imperials, and on the Elvis Tour – provides key harmonies.
And there’s a strong family component, too. Brother Rusty Golden, a former bandmate in The Boys Band and The Goldens, wrote four songs and adds background vocals. Chris’ precocious 14-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, makes an appearance on ﬁddle. And his dad, The Oaks’ William Lee Golden, joins aunt Lanette Lowery in the chorus of the closing song.
Yet much of the album is purely Chris. He delivers the songs with an unmistakable clarity and a subtle passion. And he played the bulk of the instruments himself, meticulously building the tracks with the same sort of single-minded vision that many of his heroes – including Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, John Fogerty and Dan Fogelberg – used in constructing their classic works.
“When I hear a song, I know what I want the tracks to sound like in my head,” Golden observes. “I use the different instruments and sounds I play as colors. Individually, they are very simple parts, but when I put all those simple parts together, the way those colors blend creates a sound of its own.”
Creating sound has come naturally to Golden. Self-described as a “backstage baby,” he was born just two years before his father became a member of The Oak Ridge Boys. He never took music lessons, instead learning the drums, piano and guitar simply by hearing songs and playing them back. At 15, he began touring on the Southern gospel circuit as a piano player with a group called The Telestials, and the week he graduated high school, Golden began touring as the drummer for The Boys Band, which earned a minor national hit with “Don’t Stop Me Baby (I’m On Fire).” He also appeared on the country charts numerous times in a couple of incarnations – ﬁrst with the band Cedar Creek, then with brother Rusty in the duo The Goldens.
In 1995, he stepped into The Oaks’ organization – initially as a journey-man musician, playing guitar, mandolin, harmonica, keyboard or drums, depending on the setting. In 1998, he became the band’s fulltime drummer.
Along the way, he’s fashioned four solo albums, grounded primarily in country. All the while, an unwavering desire to mold an album around his gospel roots continued to gnaw at Golden’s psyche. When he sang a couple demos of songs Rusty had written, “Gospel Road” and “I Want To Thank You,” Chris knew it was time to dig in. Worked out in steps between concert dates with The Oaks and his responsibilities at home, the album found its title track at a concert in Paducah, Kentucky, when Chris told songwriter Dianne Wilkinson how his mother used to refer to his gift for gospel as his “Sundie shoes.” Wilkinson literally wrote the song in her seat while she watched him perform.
The album collects additional material from the likes of Billy Joe and Eddie Shaver, The Louvin Brothers and Buddy & Julie Miller. It took two years to complete, and even at the end, Sunday Shoes needed one more inspirational title to give one extra ounce of energy to the project. That song appeared when Golden loaded a bundle of old songs onto his iPod. The Oaks had recorded “When He Set Me Free” for an acoustic Warner Bros. album in the early 1960’s, Folk Minded Spirituals For Spiritual Minded Folks, and he turned it into a gospełblues celebration. The track melded Chris Golden’s passion with his family’s legacy, and it serves as the perfect lead-off track.
If ever there was a doubt about the album’s direction, conﬁrmation came when a stranger appeared before an Oaks show at the Cerritos Center in Southern California as Chris set up his gear alone. The stranger introduced himself as a former drummer, then reminded Golden that he’d been given a gift, and that he needed to “play for the One who gave you the gift.”
The phrase was a transformative reminder. Golden wrote the phrase on his snare drum with a Sharpie, and it helped him take the ﬁnal steps in his full-circle walk back to his gospel roots.
“I’ve always believed in the music,” Golden says. “Music is my gift, and I wanted everything about this album to be special because I feel like I’m making it for the right reasons.”
It’s a perfect journey, a trip in his Sunday Shoes back to the sound that gave Chris Golden his eternal musical grounding.