- by Kevin M. Mitchell
in PLSN Interview
One day in 1976, Dr. Billy Golden, a chief of staff surgeon, came home with three Alice Cooper concert tickets, which he had bartered from a patient (apparently that’s how they rolled in Eastern Tennessee in those days). He not only made his 15-year-old son Michael happy, but inadvertently set his son on a career path neither knew existed. “I took two friends from high school, one being Steve, younger brother of Michael Strickland,” he tells. “That concert turned my complete focus toward working in the entertainment/concert field.” The motivated and presumably persuasive teen immediately got a job at the Freedom Hall Civic Center in Johnson City, TN. Thus his live event industry career was launched, though inauspiciously: He started at the bottom, if not a few elevator stops below that. “I mopped, swept … I literally popped popcorn by day and ran a spotlight at night.”
From that humble beginning, he would go on to be a key part of Bandit, rising through the ranks to be vice president, and overseeing some of the most successful tours and events in the live event industry. Recently we got him to sit down and tell everything about his 40 years in the business. Well … not everything: “I have some stories that don’t incriminate people … as sadly, stories from that time period often involve something illegal,” he laughs.
Populated by only 35,000 people, Golden’s hometown of Kingsport, TN has provided the live event industry with a lot of talent. In addition to the Strickland brothers, Brent Barrett, as well as brothers Kent, Eric, and Kyle Shafferman, among others, would forge the company that we know as Bandit Lites. “That’s where I first met Mitch Clark, who went on to own Tomcat, and [production manager] Steve Gudis, too.”
“Michael [Golden] was a young energetic person who proved himself over and over again to [Strickland],” says Steve Gudis, who was a promoter when he first started crossing paths with Strickland and Golden in the late 1970s. (He reminds us that, back then “promoters” were also everything — production managers, tour managers, even caterers.) “And Strickland is very loyal, always moving guys up the ladder from within. That’s a big reason why Bandit keeps clients for so long — I mean, to name just one, they’ve kept Jimmy Buffett for 30 years under Golden’s direction.”
When the teenaged Golden worked at Freedom Hall, he ran into Michael Strickland, and at least once with negative results. In 1979, Strickland and his team were at Freedom supporting Kenny Rogers, and wanted a photo of his crew. When the shot was developed, he was furious, as there was some guy he didn’t know in it. “My best friend Kent [Shafferman] had snuck me into it, and [Strickland] wanted to know who was the punk that ruined his picture,” Golden says, laughing at how the photo ended up being foretelling. “Six months later, Kent called me and said Strickland was desperate for a technician to build staging for Rogers’ next tour. I drove 100 miles to ‘interview,’ only to find they were all quite hammered and on their way to a strip club.” Golden dutifully followed along. “My job ‘interview’ wasn’t traditional, and Michael still claims he doesn’t remember it.”
“I was hesitant hiring [Golden], but not because of him per se,” Strickland recalls, explaining that several of his little brother’s friends were getting on his payroll and he had a concern that they’d all just be one high school clique, “which is exactly what happened!” he laughs. “But all those guys lasted at least 10 years, 25 years, and in Michael’s case, 36.”
Given the Keys
In 1981, Strickland told Golden he’d be driving a semi for the rock band Blackfoot. “I had never even been in a semi,” Golden says. Strickland gave him the keys and pointed at an empty parking lot. “I was given a day to ‘practice’ driving. I was then sent to get my Commercial License Exam. Fortunately, the testing place was right next to the interstate and the test consisted of driving from one end of Knoxville to the other and back on an Interstate. Three weeks later, I was driving a semi across America. Thankfully, no one got hurt, but quite a few loading docks were injured in the process.”
Next, he worked with Alabama, just as they were ascending to national prominence. He started off running as part of a two man crew that drove all night and set up the gear by day and grew into being their lighting designer and their crew chief. When not with them, he was also LD for Debby Boone and Crystal Gayle, among others. His highlight of that era was going out with international R&B sensation Billy Ocean in 1989. “We went out on a world tour, and I got to design and operate the look of the whole show,” he says smiling. “And then, I came back to Bandit and announced my resignation.” As fun as it was, the road had taken its toll on Golden, and he was looking at going back to college.
Strickland admits he was shocked when Golden wanted to quit. “He was a valued team member, so I did not want to lose him.” Meanwhile, although Strickland had set up a small Nashville office a few years earlier, it wasn’t running smoothly. Golden was mulling over where to go to school, and Nashville, with several excellent colleges, was in his sights. Strickland decided to take a chance and give Golden the keys to that shop. “I was reluctant, not because I didn’t think highly of Michael, but I just didn’t know if he had the skillset to run a warehouse.”
Nashville for Golden started out small: 3,500 square feet serving just a few acts. “In 1990, the production for country acts was much smaller” than for rock and pop, Golden explains. “But then a lot happened in the early 1990s.” That “lot that happened” has a name, and it is Garth Brooks. He, with Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn right behind him, dared to ask, “Why can’t we do big productions like the rock acts?” “Garth invested more into a stage show than any other country artist at the time,” Golden says. “He was so high energy, and he wanted every aspect of production to be at the highest level. When he went out with this large show, it set the town buzzing, and others followed suit. Suddenly, tours that just took two trucks needed 18 [for equipment].”
But the influx of higher production values and more, bigger lights caused another challenge: space to make it all work for the artist. Strickland, Golden, and Dizzy Gosnell saw that Nashville needed a building to hang a system so that a lighting designer could spend a week on it, instead of a coffee-fueled 72 hours. “We designed and built a building specifically to hang lighting, and that was the biggest key to our success in the 1990s,” he says. They essentially built a theater without an audience that featured descent trim and rigging that could handle 70,000 pounds of weight.
“The biggest challenge has always been keeping up with our growth,” he says. “We do pride ourselves on our people, and I’m a firm believer that you are judged by the company you keep. When the band comes back and says they want to use that exact crew again, they’ve done their job.” Bandit looks for new hires with “a different mindset.” Then he laughs and says, “Back in the old days, it was all just par cans and focusing lights. In todays’ world, it is so much more complex technologically. We just sent out an extremely complex show with Carrie Underwood that had 38 automated followspots. And today’s technician not only understands the tools of the trade but is good with working 18 hour days.”
Oh, and there is another Alice Cooper story: Both Strickland and Golden are big fans, and in spring of 2000, Cooper was preparing for his next tour. “I asked if [Strickland] if he dared me to go after it and then wrote what I consider a most persuasive letter to Toby Mamis, the tour manager for Alice. A few weeks after sending it, Toby called me, and I guess I said all the right things, as I landed Alice Cooper! I also got to call the same best friend from high school that attended that first concert [Kent Shafferman] and ask him if he wanted to become the LD for Alice. That story took 30 years to come full circle.” But a funny epilogue happened four years later, when Cooper’s team asked for a price break on the next tour. Golden convinced Strickland to grant it under one condition — Cooper would agree to play at least one game of golf with them a year. “I must say the Alice camp — thank you Toby Mamis — makes absolutely sure we get at least one game in each year, and I think that is so very, very cool.”
Strickland’s funniest memory of Golden is also bittersweet. Strickland had carefully saved every bit of gear he ever used, including items used when he started the company back in middle school. “This consisted of a lot of lighting ‘equipment’ made out of plywood [and] two-by-fours — essentially wooden boxes with plug strips and r40s in them,” he says. “I saved every bit of it, because I thought it was historic.” It was a thought his coworkers didn’t share, because he pulled into the parking lot one day from being on the road and saw Golden and Kent Shafferman standing in front of a 12-foot pile of his early gear, ablaze. “Michael [Golden] turned around and had a look that said, ‘Uh-oh he caught us,’” Strickland says. “I got out almost in tears going, ‘what are you doing?’” They thought they were doing a good thing, getting rid of old gear they didn’t use to make more room in the warehouse. “I did get a Polaroid of the bonfire, though, and today we all laugh about it.”
Still Going Strong
Reflecting back, Golden acknowledges he’s had an unlikely career for the son of a chief of staff surgeon. “I greatly admired my father for his integrity and honesty. I knew the entertainment industry had a certain reputation, and I never wanted to let him down. Late in his life he once told me if he could have done it all over again, he wishes he could have done what I do. That was the greatest compliment he could have given me.”
Retirement is not on the horizon for Golden, at least not soon. “As I grow older and thoughts of retirement occur, my biggest sadness is how much I will miss working with the folks I work with. There are some employees at Bandit that I toured with in 1980, and there are other folks that I personally hired 20 years ago. They are all my family.” He’s a dedicated family man on every level, including still being married to Susan, who he dated when he was just a stagehand. “When I was faced with returning to college or sticking it out with Bandit, she encouraged me to follow my dreams. I married that same woman years later and she still believes in me. I have a daughter, Emily, that I hope looks up to me like I looked up to my father and I never want to let her down. They both drive me to not only put on my boots but to buckle ‘em up tight.
“I may not be remembered as the most talented lighting guy that ever lived, but I hope to be remembered as one of the most dedicated to doing my best for my family and the people I work with.”