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Steel guitar player for Hank Williams

Times Staff Writer

Don Helms, the steel guitarist whose aching instrumental cry gave musical voice to the anguish and the joy in virtually all the key recordings by country music titan Hank Williams, died Monday in Nashville, apparently of a heart attack. He was 81.

Helms died at Skyline Medical Center, said Michael Thomas, a director at Forest Lawn Funeral Home.

Helms, the last surviving member of Williams’ band, the Drifting Cowboys, played at Williams’ side for the better part of a decade, from 1943 until his death at age 29 on the way to a New Year’s Day 1953 performance in Canton, Ohio.

Helms’ steel guitar sound brought a visceral mournfulness to Williams’ heartache ballads, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold, Cold Heart” and “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You).” It also provided the electric jolt to his upbeat hits such as “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”

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“It was crystal clear to me that he single-handedly gave this music its identity,” 19-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter-guitarist Vince Gill said Wednesday. “On so many of those records, the sound of that weeping guitar is what you hear long before you hear Hank’s voice.”

The key element of Helms’ style was the piercing, high-pitched notes he favored, a strategy suggested to him early on by fabled Nashville publisher, songwriter and producer Fred Rose, who helped shape Williams’ songs and career.

“That treble would stall dogs,” said John Rumble, senior historian at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Don told me that one time when he was recording with Hank, Fred Rose took his hands and put them out just past the treble strings and said, ‘Don, play up here.’

“It was Fred’s belief, which proved accurate, that a high, whining sound would cut through the noise of a typical roadhouse or bar where people would be talking, dancing and carrying on.”

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George Jones, widely considered the greatest country singer since Williams, said Thursday, “Hank Sr. was always my favorite artist and is still my favorite artist, so you’d have to say Don Helms was right there with Hank in my mind. I think all the sidemen that Hank used back in those days were the finest musicians in the world. And Don was the standout player. You heard him more than anyone except the fiddle. It’s a sad thing to see them all go.”

Donald Hugh Helms was born Feb. 28, 1927, in New Brockton, Ala., where he was reared on a small farm. As a boy, he was enamored of the music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, particularly steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe.

Helms got his first steel guitar, a gift from his grandmother, when he was 15, and at 18 he began playing with Williams in joints around Alabama.

He left the band for a couple of years when he was drafted by the Army during World War II. In 1946, Helms chose to remain closer to home when Williams headed to Nashville. But by the time Williams joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, he’d brought Helms back into the Drifting Cowboys.

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After Williams’ premature death, Helms joined Ray Price’s band and was a key part of his success in the 1950s.

His contributions also can be heard on Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight,” Ernest Tubb’s “Letters Have No Arms,” Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and hundreds of recordings by Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Ferlin Husky, Chet Atkins, the Wilburn Brothers, Jim Reeves and others.

In recent years, he also recorded sessions with Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride, Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi and Kid Rock.

Helms played the older style of non-pedal steel guitar, favoring a 1949 Gibson model he was able to afford once Williams’ songs started making money for the band. He kept that instrument under his bed at his home in Hendersonville, Tenn., pulling it out only for special occasions.

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Helms remained a working musician until the end, keeping the family connection alive over time by playing for Hank Williams Jr. in the late-1960s and early ‘70s; later with Jett Williams, the daughter born a few days after Hank Sr. died; and Hank Jr.'s son, Hank Williams III.

Gill brought him in for a session about two months ago, part of a project of putting music to lyrics from a batch of unfinished songs Williams left behind. He and Rodney Crowell worked together on the song, titled “I Hope You Shed a Million Tears,” and when it came time to record it, Gill said, “I told Rodney, ‘I heard Don play the other day, and I just think it would be so authentic and great if we had him play on it. . . . The neat thing for me was how the spirit of it felt like the era of that music. We all gathered in a circle and played together, played live; there was no overdubbing, no fixing it in a studio . . .

“I don’t have any idea if that’s the last thing he ever played on, it very well could be,” Gill said. “If it was, I’ll treasure it like nothing else I’ve ever done.”

Helms wrote a book of reminiscences of his tenure in the Drifting Cowboys titled “Settin’ the Woods on Fire -- Confessions of Hank’s Steel Guitar Player,” published in 2005. He also recorded two CDs’ worth of stories about his life and career, as well as several albums of instrumentals.

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By Helms’ count, he played on 104 recordings Williams made and accompanied him at hundreds of live performances.

“The story I hadn’t heard until recently,” singer-songwriter Marty Stuart said Wednesday, “was about the last time he saw Hank. Somebody asked him about it on one of those Q&A; panels we often have here. He said they were recording and Hank walked up -- he called him Shag because of his curly hair -- and said ‘Shag, I got a new song I just come up with. I want you to give me a pretty kickoff for it. It goes something like this.’ Don said, ‘We recorded the thing, we did it in one take, then Hank said ‘I’m tired’ and he left the studio. That was the last I ever saw him. The song was ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ ” That was in September 1952. The record was released posthumously and became one of Williams’ biggest hits.

Helms is survived by his wife of 63 years, Hazel; two sons, Don and Timothy Helms; two brothers; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Services will be held today in Goodlettsville, Tenn., north of Nashville.

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randy.lewis@latimes.com


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