Don Helms, the last surviving member of Hank Williams band, the Drifting Cowboys, died yesterday of complications following recent heart bypass surgery.
I had the privilege of a casual conversation with with Don in May 2000 during intermission from a benefit concert in Lafayette, TN. I was playing keyboards for Leroy Van Dyke, and he was accompanying Jett Williams, Hank's daughter.
In less than a month I would return to the white collar workforce, and Don would go on to finish his illustrious career as "the dean of Nashville musicians," as Marty Stuart puts it.
But for a few precious minutes on the steps of Macon County high school eight years ago, Don Helms and I were equals, relaxing together from our jobs as sidemen. It is a memory I shall treasure for the rest of my days.
My good friend Jerry Webb played with Don for ten years (see Jerry's MySpace page). Folks like Don & Jerry make me glad I made the move to Music City ten years ago.
Here's the article from today's Nashville Tennessean:
August 12, 2008
Steel guitarist put lonely in Hank, Patsy classics
By PETER COOPER
Don Helms 1927-2008
Don Helms, whose lonesome steel guitar graced some of country music's most important and enduring records, died Monday at Skyline Medical Center after suffering a heart attack. Mr. Helms was 81.
"In my mind, he was the dean of Nashville musicians," singer-songwriter Marty Stuart said. "He served at the foundational level for the family of country music."
Mr. Helms was the last remaining member of Hank Williams' original Drifting Cowboys band, and he played integral parts on Williams classics, including "Cold, Cold Heart," "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)." After Williams' 1953 death, Mr. Helms played on notable recordings such as Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight," Lefty Frizzell's "Long Black Veil" and Stonewall Jackson's "Waterloo."
"Nobody was better respected and loved than him," said Lloyd Green, like Mr. Helms a member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. "There weren't a lot of stylists who were inimitable, and he certainly was. And he never lost any skills: Throughout his life, he played exactly like he did in the 1940s and '50s."
Mr. Helms often played introductions and solos to songs high up on the neck of his steel, and the result was an emotionally direct sound that cut through the mix of the song and allowed his playing to serve as a kind of duet with the lead singer.
He showcased that playing on stages throughout his life, bringing his 1948 Gibson Console Grand to thousands of shows, and he was at home playing the historic Ryman Auditorium or Robert's Western World across the alley.
In performance, he would treat audiences to instrumental versions of songs by Williams, Cline and others, and listeners left with the understanding that Mr. Helms' playing was not merely an adornment to those recordings. Take the steel away, and the impact of the song would be irrevocably compromised.
"He kept that same steel under his bed," said Stuart, who with wife Connie Smith frequently visited with Mr. Helms and his wife of more than 60 years, Hazel. "I'd go get that guitar and hand him his picks and he'd play 'Walkin' After Midnight' and 'Cold, Cold Heart' and just freeze me to death. When he was through, you realized, 'There wouldn't be this part of country music if it hadn't been for Don Helms.' "
He fell in love with sound
Mr. Helms was born in New Brockton, Ala., and as a child he fell in love with the sound of the steel guitar.
Each Friday he listened to the Grand Ole Opry to hear the steel players, and he was inspired to play after hearing a performance by Alabama native Pappy Neal McCormick.
"He was playing that thing and I thought, 'Man, what a way to have fun. What a way to make a living,' " Mr. Helms told author Colin Escott.
At 15, Mr. Helms purchased an electrified steel guitar from Sears, though the farm where he lived had no electricity. To practice, the teenager had to flip a washtub over and place the steel on the tub: The washtub resonated enough for the steel to be heard. When Mr. Helms joined Hank Williams' band at age 18, he was happy to play clubs with power outlets.
A year after joining up with Williams, Mr. Helms was drafted into the Army. Upon his return to civilian life, he turned down a chance to join Williams on the Louisiana Hayride show but became a Drifting Cowboy again in 1949, after Williams became a Grand Ole Opry star. In less than four years, Williams would be dead, but in that time Mr. Helms established himself as an instrumental force onstage and in the studio.
"Don was very honest about those times, but also very sentimental," said Country Music Hall of Fame Instrument Curator Bill Lloyd, who interviewed Mr. Helms in 2006 for the Hall's Nashville Cats series. "When he would tell stories about Hank, he'd sometimes well up with emotion."
He played Hank till end
His recordings with Williams would be enough to secure Mr. Helms' legend, yet he remained active in music throughout his life. In addition to his studio work, he played in the band of Williams' daughter, Jett Williams, beginning in 1989, and he often performed at steel guitar conventions and at live music shows. Mr. Helms appeared with the Wilburn Brothers (including a stint on the brothers' syndicated television show), Ray Price, Ferlin Husky, Cal Smith and plenty of others. Mr. Helms performed with Hank Williams Jr. as well, and with Williams' grandson, Hank Williams III. In recent years, he played once each month at Robert's Western World, bringing that old Gibson out from under the bed and toting it to Lower Broadway.
"His goal was to keep playing Hank Williams songs until he died," Green said.
In 2005, Mr. Helms joined with Dale Vinicur to write an as-told-to memoir called Settin' the Woods On Fire: Confessions of Hank's Steel Guitar Player. In truth, categorizing Mr. Helms merely as Williams' steel guitarist minimizes his other accomplishments, which include writing songs recorded by Brenda Lee and Hank Williams Jr. Yet the Hank Williams legacy is among country's most vital, and Mr. Helms was pleased to be a crucial part of that legacy. Though his face was in the shadows, his steel guitar was right up front.
"Nobody else played like that," said Country Music Hall of Fame guitarist Harold Bradley. "Anytime anyone does one of those Hank Williams songs, they're going to have to copy what Don did."
On Monday, Stuart grew emotional, thinking not only of Mr. Helms' musical contributions but also of his personal kindnesses.
"He truly was an essential," Stuart said through tears.
Meanwhile, Hank Williams Jr. chose to ponder a reunion rather than a loss.
"The last of the Drifting Cowboys has gone home to heaven," he said. "The heavenly band is now complete."