Don Helms, the last "Drifting Cowboy," has died at the age of 81. While his name may not be familiar to you, VOA's Katherine Cole says if you've ever heard a sad classic country music song, you've probably heard the sound of Don Helms' steel guitar.
Fans and critics often use the word "lonesome" when describing the sound of classic country music. But what does "lonesome" sound like? For many, it's the mix of Hank Williams' voice and Don Helms' steel guitar on songs like "Cold Cold Heart."
"That was Hank's favorite of all the songs that he wrote, and it's also my favorite," said Helms, the last survivor of Hank Williams' "Drifting Cowboys," in an interview recorded in 1999. At first, you might think picking a favorite Hank Williams song wouldn't be difficult. After all, the iconic country singer only recorded 66 songs under his own name. An amazing 37 of those were hits, however, making the choice much more difficult, especially for Don Helms, who played on most of those now-classic recordings by Hank Williams and his alter ego, "Luke the Drifter."
Don Helms, who died of a heart attack on August 11, was born in 1927 in the southern state of Alabama, and grew up listening to the sound of steel guitars on the weekly radio broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. At 15, Helms purchased his first steel guitar, and by 1943, he was good enough to be playing in Hank Williams' band. His first stint as a "Drifting Cowboy" was a short one, ending when Helms, not yet 18 years old, joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II.
In 1949, Don Helms signed on again with Hank Williams, who by then had become both a Grand Ole Opry star and a compulsive songwriter. In less than four years, the two went on to record a string of hits, cementing Williams' status as an iconic composer and performer. Yet it is Don Helms' signature steel guitar sound you hear on almost every one of Hank Williams' hit songs, establishing Helms as an instrumental force.
But even though he was writing and recording hit records by the dozens, Hank Williams was a very unhappy man. He drank to excess, and was fired from the Opry in August 1952. The next month, he called Helms into the studio for a recording session. Years later, Don Helms remembered Hank and the Drifting Cowboys recorded four songs that day, including future hits "Kawliga, "Take These Chains From My Heart," and "I Could Never Be Ashamed Of You." And the fourth … ?
"He said 'this next one goes like this,' and he sang about two lines, and said 'Don, you know what to give me.' So I kicked that song off, and he sang it all the way through and none of us made a mistake bad enough to stop it [the recording process] because we were going right on to a disc," he said. "The ironic part is I never saw Hank Williams again after that. He left and went back to Shreveport [Louisiana], and he died before I ever saw him again. The song was 'Your Cheatin' Heart.'"
Hank Williams died on New Year's Day 1953, at the age of 29. "Your Cheatin' Heart" was released later that year, and went to a six-week stay at Number One on the country chart.
Don Helms' career did not die with Hank Williams. He went on to record with 45 members of the Country Music Hall of Fame including Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, Webb Pierce and Brenda Lee, and continued to perform until recently. Don Helms' big red steel guitar can be heard on countless hit songs, including Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight."