The steel guitar of Don Helms is an essential element of more than 100 recordings by Hank Williams, including the country landmarks "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold, Cold Heart," and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)." Following Williams' death, the guitarist also lent his signature sound to myriad Nashville classics including Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight," Ernest Tubb's "Letters Have No Arms," Loretta Lynn's "Success," and Stonewall Jackson's "Waterloo." Born in New Brockton, AB on February 28, 1927, Helms acquired his first Silvertone lap steel and amplifier at age 15 in emulation of his boyhood idol Leon McAuliffe, of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys fame. At 17 he joined fledgling singer/songwriter Williams and his band the Drifting Cowboys, touring clubs and private parties across central and southern Alabama. In 1945, Helms joined the military, but upon returning to civilian life two years later he rejoined Williams, who in the interim signed on with publishing firm Acuff-Rose and landed a record deal with MGM. This incarnation of the Drifting Cowboys -- also featuring guitarist Bob McNett, bassist Hillous Butrum and fiddler Jerry Rivers -- proved its definitive lineup, backing Williams on radio's Louisiana Hayride as well as early hits like "Lovesick Blues" and "Wedding Bells." At the time Helms joined Williams, he was playing a Fender eight-string, double-neck steel guitar, but in 1950 he acquired a Gibson Console Grande (also an eight-string double neck), which he connected to a 1949 Fender Pro amp to forge the rich, resonant sound so essential to Williams' genre-defining honky tonk approach.
Despite their creative and commercial success, Williams' alcoholism and substance abuse careened out of control, and in October 1952 he was fired from radio's Grand Ole Opry. Weeks later, after the star's wedding to Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, the Drifting Cowboys parted ways, citing Williams' penchant for ringing up bar tabs that exceeded what the band earned per performance. Following Williams' January 1, 1953 death, Helms toured in support of acts including Ray Price, Ferlin Husky, the Wilburn Brothers and Cal Smith while emerging as a first-call Nashville session player behind singers including Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Brenda Lee; in 1963, he also signed to the Smash label to cut a pair of instrumental LPs, The Steel Guitar Sounds of Hank Williams and Don Helms' Steel Guitar. In addition Helms was a composer of some distinction, penning such oft-covered tunes as "Somebody's Back in Town," "Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes," "Smoke Along the Track," and "That's What I Get for Loving You." For a time Helms toured behind Hank Williams Jr., and in 1977 joined a reincarnated Drifting Cowboys band. In late 1989, he also began an extended collaboration with Williams' daughter Jett. Inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1984, Helms continued recording and touring even in the wake of a 1997 lawn mower mishap that cost him the tip of his picking pointer finger. He also found time to publish a memoir, Settin' the Woods on Fire: Confessions of Hank's Steel Guitar Player. The last surviving member of the classic Drifting Cowboys lineup, Helms died of a heart attack on August 11, 2008 at the age of 81. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi