Celebrated Steel Guitarist Don Helms, 81

By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

Don Helms, 81, the steel guitarist who became one of country music's most influential musicians through his association with singer-composer Hank Williams in the 1940s and early 1950s, died Aug. 11 at Skyline Medical Center in Nashville after a heart attack.

Mr. Helms spent most of his later career as a session player in Nashville, giving important musical color to such hit recordings as Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight" (1957), Lefty Frizzell's "The Long Black Veil" (1959) and Loretta Lynn's "Blue Kentucky Girl" (1964).

But Mr. Helms was mostly remembered as the last surviving member of the Drifting Cowboys, the original Hank Williams ensemble. With a steel guitar that echoed the bluesy timbre of Williams's voice, he played on more than 100 of his recordings, including country music chart-toppers as " Cold, Cold Heart" and "Your Cheatin' Heart."

Mr. Helms also provided the bouncy twang to such up-tempo songs as "Jambalaya" and "Hey, Good Lookin' " and the weeping notes on slow songs including "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

Williams's manager, Fred Rose, encouraged Mr. Helms to favor the high strings in the steel guitar's upper register. That approach gave Williams's records a trademark sound that could cut through the noise and boisterousness of a rural honky-tonk and that firmly established the steel guitar as the lead instrument in the honky-tonk style of country music.

Donald Hugh Helms was born Feb. 28, 1927, in New Brockton, Ala., where he grew up on a family farm.

A performance by local steel guitarist "Pappy" Neal McCormick inspired Mr. Helms to take up the instrument. Mr. Helms also cited as an early influence steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe of the western swing group Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

At 15, he acquired his first steel guitar, a Sears Silvertone model held flat on the lap. Because the Helms family farm was without electricity, Mr. Helms played the instrument on a metal washtub to make it resonate.

At 18, he was invited into the Drifting Cowboys as it performed on radio station WSFA in Montgomery, Ala., and toured the state. However, his initial tenure with the band was short-lived, as Mr. Helms went into the Army during World War II.

Mr. Helms reunited with the Cowboys in 1949, by which time Williams had a hit record and was appearing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. The prestigious radio program made Mr. Helms a renowned instrumentalist, but working with Williams was not without its drawbacks. The bandleader struggled with morphine addiction and alcoholism and was prone to wander out on stage in a state of inebriation or to miss engagements altogether. Williams died Jan. 1, 1953, at 29.

"Don was very honest about those times, but also sentimental," Country Music Hall of Fame curator Bill Lloyd once said. "When he would tell stories about Hank, he'd sometimes well up with emotion."

In later years, Mr. Helms also mastered the pedal steel guitar, but he exclusively played a non-pedal model, a double-necked Gibson Console Grand, on Williams's recordings.

Mr. Helms toured in the 1950s with singer Ray Price and later with the Wilburn Brothers, Hank Williams Jr. and Ernest Tubb. In 1977, Mr. Helms joined a reunited Drifting Cowboys in concert tributes to Williams, and he recruited Williams's daughter Jett Williams as a singer in 1989.

Mr. Helms was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1984, and he continued to be in demand as a Nashville session player. He even accompanied rock performers Bon Jovi and Kid Rock. At the time of his death, Mr. Helms was working with singer Vince Gill on an album of Hank Williams songs. He also performed once a month at Robert's Western World, a Nashville club that promotes itself as "Burgers, Boots, Beer and Booze."

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Hazel Cullifer Helms; two sons; two brothers; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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