When you hear the word “twang” you think of a steel guitar. The instrument transforms any song from pop to country. And Donald Hugh Helms was the master of the instrument.
His career kicked off as an original member of Hank Williams’ backing band, Drifting Cowboys, in the ‘40s. He plays the bluesy steel guitar in over 100 songs for Hank Williams Sr. and after Williams’ untimely death in 1953, Helms wasn’t done helping shape the sound of country music.
Don Helms, “Cold Cold Heart”
Don Helms played steel guitar and made tears flow on songs by Patsy Cline, Stonewall Jackson, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, including classics like Lynn’s “Blue Kentucky Girl,” Jackson’s “Waterloo,” Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” and several early recordings for Cash.
Helms only released one solo album Don Helms’ Steel Guitar, where he plays his favorite country classics on steel guitar. The rest of his musical career is behind his steel guitar and behind the scenes.
Don Helms ft. Charley Pride, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
After Williams Sr., he worked with Ray Price as the Cherokee Cowboys before eventually joining the backing band for the Wilburn Brothers, the Nashville Tennesseans, in 1957. He was reunited with the Williams name in the late ‘60s and ‘70s when he played with Hank Williams Jr. he even reunited the Drifting Cowboys to play on the road with Hank Williams’ daughter, Jett Williams in 1989.
In 1984, he was recognized for his pioneering sounds when he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. He passed from a heart attack in 2008 while working with Vince Gill on a never-completed album of Hank Williams songs.
Helms didn’t play the kind of steel guitar you see today—his lacked the foot pedals. He played his original double-neck 1948 Gibson Console Grande steel guitar even in his old age.
Don Helms, “B Bowman Hop”
Helms never stopped working, playing live for country music shows and festivals—he even played with Bon Jovi and Kid Rock. Though we lost him over a decade ago, his talents live on in the country classics and the country revival currently happening in pop and indie music today.