How many tears have been spilled during the playing of "Your Cheatin' Heart?" Maybe the better question is: How many teaspoons are in the ocean? Hank Williams' quivery vocal—a moon calf that can barely walk—is matched by the piercing cry of a steel guitar. Listen to that guitar again. That high-pitched keening is Don Helms, the late master of the instrument, and his signature is all over the foundation of country music.
"He worked for everybody," says Dale Vinicur, an author who helped Helms write his 2005 memoir, Settin' the Woods on Fire. Vinicur is one sponsor of Sunday's Don Helms Tribute Show at the Texas Troubadour Theatre. Helms compatriots Ray Price, Bobby Bare and Jesse Lee Jones will perform, with proceeds going to The Don Helms Memorial Fund.
"It's an evening of mostly music," says Vinicur. "It's not people giving long talks about Don. We want to pay him tribute. He deserves to have this tribute to his life and his music."
"[His playing] stuck out like a sore thumb," says Price. "Everybody that plays 'Your Cheatin' Heart,' when they cover it, they do that thing that Don did. I just want to do this benefit so everybody will know what a musician Don was."
When Helms died in 2008, every obituary noted his main claim to notoriety—being the last living member of Williams' Drifting Cowboys band. When Williams lit out of Alabama for Nashville in 1946, Helms, who had started playing with the raw-boned honky-tonker at the tender age of 18, stayed home. By 1949, when Williams finally hit the Opry, Helms was back in the Drifting Cowboys fold, where he would remain until Williams' death on New Year's Day in 1953.
The hundred or so recordings that Helms made with Williams (including "Cold, Cold Heart," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Hey, Good Lookin' ") secured his legend, but that was only a small part of his overall career. He had a long relationship with Price, who stepped in to front the Drifting Cowboys after Williams' death. Helms, who also stuck by the side of Williams' clan, from Jr. to Jet, never lacked for gigs. At the beginning of his career, he sat in with Patsy Cline and with Johnny Cash on his first albums. Toward the end, he provided backing for Taylor Swift.
The sound that made Helms so essential was one he found early, a high-pitched wail vigorously plucked out on a 1950s Gibson guitar that pre-dated pedal steel models. Helms would later switch to a pedal steel but would keep the Gibson guitar safe under his bed. That Gibson was so revered that Alan Jackson rented it out from Helms for a special concert.
While Helms might have been invisible to the average country music fan, among the rabid followers of the sound of steel guitar, he was something close to a god.
"Steel guitar players have this amazing brotherhood—and sisterhood," says Vinicur. "It's like a fraternal organization. There are conventions where they come in from all over the world and perform together. Don's connection to Hank Williams made him a star in that group."
Despite the love from steel guitar aficionados and even the occasional sit-in with established Nashville vets such as Vince Gill, the last years of Helms' life found him struggling to make the music that once flowed out of him. His decades in the music business had left him with a treasure chest of friends and fans but no health insurance or much to fall back on when age started to take its toll.
"In more recent years, things slowed down for Don," Vinicur notes. "He could go to shows and sell CDs and some of his books. But he had diabetes and then a stroke. He struggled to get his fingers to work the way he wanted."
"The last gig he was going to, he was driving there with his wife Hazel. Don was always the driver on the road. But this last gig, he didn't know where he was."
At the very end of his life, Helms' thoughts were preoccupied with his wife of more than 60 years.
"He was very worried about Hazel," says Vinicur. "He asked everybody to watch after Hazel."
The tribute will give Helms' friends in the industry a chance to honor the legacy of an innovator. Whatever tears happen to fall during the show, they'll be matched by a sound that the honoree brought to vivid life.
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