Who is Don Helms?
Donald Hugh Helms was born in New Brockton, Alabama, and grew up on the family farm. When he was young, he listened to the Texas swing music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Steel guitar player, Leon McAuliffe, as was a local player, Neal McCormick, were big inspirations to him. At 15, he had his first Sears Silvertone steel guitar, played flatly on the lap. Since the farmhouse had no electricity, he played the instrument over a washtub to make it resonate. During his teenage years, Helms became a member of the Drifting Cowboys – the backup band for Williams and a local radio star who performed in small clubs and roadhouses. Helms remained in Alabama, where he had a stable job, but after Williams joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1949 and created a sensation with his first No. 1 hit, ‘Lovesick Blues’, he became part of the new edition of the Drifting Cowboys that Williams put together in Nashville.
Helms accompanied more than 100 Hank Williams songs. 10 of these are on Hank Sr.’s 11 No. 1 country hits. He provided sounds in songs like ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ and added a catchy, propulsive twang to up-tempo numbers like ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou)’ and ‘Hey, Good Lookin’.
Have I Told You Lately That I Love You, Fostered Hank and Helms Great Camaraderie
Don Helms, whose piercing, forceful steel guitar helped define the sound of nearly all of Hank Williams’s hits. He also performed and recorded with a long list of other country greats. At the peak of his career in 1951, Hank Williams recorded 143 songs for the Mother’s Best Flour Company. Hank sang with his regular studio band and recorded his hits. He also did many songs he never recorded commercially anywhere else. Helms contribution enhancing some of his songs is evident. It certainly is on Hank’s cover of the famous country, pop and later rock classic ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’. His solo is haunting, and the whole recording is really a duet between Hank and Don Helms. Listen to it again. It’s beautiful.
Don Helms’ talent took it well beyond such strategy. Don Helms revered Hank Williams Sr. so much and have had a great sense of humor. Once he said that the Hank Williams he read about in biographies didn’t resemble the Hank Williams he knew from his days as a Drifting Cowboy. He said,
“My one wish in life is that everybody who had written a book about Hank Williams had met him.”
Helms was also a regular performer at steel guitar conventions and concerts, where electrified listeners with a few signature chords from country music’s most cherished hits. Always he would say,
“Now, close your eyes and think of Hank.”