Don Helms: Hank Williams' steel guitarist
Friday 19 September 2008
A highly influential steel guitarist, Don Helms was best known for his membership of Hank Williams' band The Drifting Cowboys. His distinctive style, with its blues inflections and characteristic use of the upper octaves, featured on over a hundred of the singer's classic sides, including "Cold, Cold Heart" (1950), "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" (1951) and "Your Cheatin' Heart" (1952).
Born in rural Alabama, Helms was inspired to take up the instrument after witnessing a performance by a local musician, "Pappy" Neal McCormick. Shortly thereafter, he purchased his first electric steel guitar, a Silvertone, from a Sears catalogue and, because there was no electricity at the family farm, practised using an up-ended washing tub as it offered sufficient resonance to achieve the sound he sought.
While still in his teens, he formed the Alabama Rhythm Boys, a band that was soon supporting Williams as he began his ascent to stardom. In 1945 Helms was drafted and, on his discharge in 1947, opted for a better-paid jobplaying with the house-band at a local ice-rink rather than rejoining his former boss. Williams, however, continued to make overtures toward Helms and, following the singer's break-through performance of "Lovesick Blues" at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, he relented and became a Drifting Cowboy.
In the years following Williams' premature death in 1953, Helms maderegular appearances in the recording studio, supporting Ray Price andJohnny Cash, supplying the memorable intro to Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" (1957) and featuring on hits such as Lefty Frizzell's "Long Black Veil" and Stonewall Jackson's "Waterloo" (both 1959). He enjoyed a decade-long association with the Wilburn Brothers, wrote a No 1 hit for Brenda Lee, "Fool Number One" (1961), and played for six years alongside Hank Williams Jnr.
In 1977, he and the other surviving members of The Drifting Cowboys reformed to revive the sounds that had brought them fame decades earlier. They recorded a handful of albums and toured internationally, appearing twice at the Wembley Festival in London. In 1981 Helms recorded the "Ballad of Hank", a tongue-in-cheek duet with Hank Williams Jnr for his million-selling album The Pressure is On.
Helms continued to perform into his ninth decade. A gifted raconteur,in 2005 he published a highly entertaining memoir, Settin' the Woods On Fire: Confessions of Hank's Steel Guitar Player.
Donald Hugh Helms, steel guitarist: born New Brockton, Alabama 28 February 1927; married; died Nashville, Tennessee 11 August 2008.
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