Learning to Play
It was the beginning of a new era in American music...the transition from traditional "hillbilly" music to "country and western" music and the forerunner of today's Country music. It was a period known as "The Golden Era of Country Music".
A major contributor to this important evolution in contemporary music was steel guitarist Don Helms. Don's steel defines the rock-solid country sound in hundreds of legendary recordings with the likes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Loretta Lynn, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Johnny Cash and Webb Pierce in addition to countless other top names in country music from the 1940's through the 1990's.
Born on a small farm in New Brockton, Alabama on February 28, 1927, Donald Hugh Helms was influenced by the prominent steel guitar style of "Take It Away, Leon" McAuliffe with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At 15, Don bought a Silvertone lapsteel and amp. By age 17, he found himself playing behind a young local radio personality named Hank Williams. Together they performed in small clubs and schoolhouses until Don went into the service in 1945. By the time Don was discharged in 1947, Hank was already signed on with Acuff-Rose publishing company and MGM records and was on his way to Shreveport's "Louisiana Hayride". Don was not ready to leave Alabama for Louisiana, but once Hank tore the roof off the Grand Ole Opry with "Lovesick Blues" in 1949, Hank convinced Don to join him in Nashville and the two helped make country music history.
Helms started his days with Hank playing a Fender eight-string doubleneck steel guitar. In 1950, he did a little horse-trading and ended up with the Gibson Console Grande (also an 8-string double neck) found on so many great hits of the 1950's. Don's tunings were (bass to treble):
A C# E G# B C# E G#
(Don calls this tuning an E6)
Inside neck -
F# A B D# F# A C# E
(Don calls this tuning a B13)
Almost all of Don's classic leads were done on the E6; he used the B13 for fills. The strength and confidence of his picking along with the sound-saturation through his 1949 Fender Pro amp caused many radio and jukebox speakers to resonate what became known as that distinctive Helms sound. Hank's major hits of Cold, Cold Heart, Why Don't You Love Me, Your Cheatin' Heart, I Can't Help It (if I'm still in love with you) and a host of others are full of the rich, clearly identifiable sounds of Don's steel.
Patsy Cline's original recording of "Walking After Midnight", Ernest Tubb's "Letters Have No Arms", Loretta Lynn's "Success" and Stonewall Jackson's "Waterloo" are other recordings highlighting Don's unique stylings. Since his Hank Williams days, Don has been in numerous bands with stars such as Ray Price, Ferlin Husky, Wilburn Brothers, Cal Smith and Hank Williams, Jr. In 1977, he joined the re-established Drifting Cowboys Band. Since October 1989, he has been playing behind Hank's daughter Jett Williams.
Don now uses a 10-string double neck Derby pedal steel, but his sound and touch are still unmistakable. He still takes out his Gibson Console Grande for special occasions. In preparation for a 1997 TV show, Alan Jackson asked to borrow Don's Gibson for a special segment on Hank's music. After Alan returned the guitar with a small gratuity, Don quipped, "I think I'll retire and book my steel on the road".
Of course, retirement is not yet on Don's agenda. Despite a 1997 accident with his lawnmower that left him with 1/4" less of his picking pointer finger, Don is still playing and is still on the road. With a warm personality and wonderful sense of humor, Don is a walking history book on the evolution of the "Golden Era of Country Music".
He has received a number of special recognitions and was inducted in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1984. He and his wife Hazel continue to live near Nashville, as they have since the days of Hank Williams.
Don's short term goal is to play into the year 2000, where he can pride himself of having recorded in 7 decades, 2 centuries and 2 millennia. His legacy in pioneering and defining the steel guitar is timeless...Don Helms is truly an American music pioneer and stylist whose mark on the country music world will be cherished and admired for years to come.
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