NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Missing Links That Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen Sought

Each Needed a Don Helms or a Clarence Clemons for Musical Completion

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Every few years, someone needs to resurrect the old George Jones classic song “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.”

Because, face it, that’s an important question — and not just in country music. There are a lot of big shoes not being filled anymore. But there are precious few folks standing around today who are fit to fill the shoes of the music giants in any genre. In country, I mean Jones and Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette. Now, it’s starting to filter down to other recent greats such as Randy Travis and Garth Brooks. They’re not declining, but neither are they in the white-hot years of their first creativity.

How do you fill a pair of giant shoes with an “artist” who is a product of very careful and endlessly rewritten song co-writes and of very polished studio production? How could George Jones compete with such smooth auto-tuning? How could Waylon Jennings even want to fool with song co-writing and studio tinkering and retakes? How would Merle Haggard react to suggestions to revise his lyrics to perhaps avoid offending a certain segment of advertiser?

It was said that there were footprints on the ceiling when Johnny Paycheck recorded his greatest songs. Those footprints on the ceiling were not the result of yoga exercises, you can be assured. And the songs were not sponsored by a yoga advertiser.

And in the recent history of rock music, there are precious few giants left. To that regard, the recent passing of Clarence Clemons signaled the end of an era for a very proud band and for an enormously important chapter in American popular musical history. It also prompts an equally important question: Who fills the shoes of the essential supporting musician? Especially the sideman who basically provided the band and the star with their distinctive, identifiable sound.

Bruce and the E Street Band in the ’70s were very much the Hank Williams equivalent in rock music. They came up out of nowhere and created themselves and their own sound. And their songs perfectly reflected and defined their listeners and their audiences as part of their organic movement. The songs were unlike anything that had come before. If ever it were peer group music created for the creators and their own folk, Hank and Bruce were both true populists. Bruce knew this and acknowledged it and studied Hank’s recordings.

In their formative years, both Hank Williams and Bruce Springsteen were lacking the core to their sound, the one ingredient that was missing.

The missing ingredient in Hank’s early music was the steel guitar. Helms played with Williams in the early 1940s, then went into the military. When he returned, he decided to play local gigs. After Hank’s 1949 debut success on the Grand Ole Opry, he was able to lure Helms back into his Drifting Cowboys band. Helms ended up playing on more than 100 Hank recordings. Once Hank relocated Don Helms and locked in on him, he had the secret lodestone that would set his music free. When Helms loosed his musical dogs in songs such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” then you could hear the fulfillment of what Hank had envisioned for his music.

Clemons and Bruce were in separate New Jersey musical orbits before they locked up together. Of the evening Clemons went to see Bruce perform at the Student Prince in Asbury Park, Clemons told an interviewer that it was a stormy night and, when he opened the door, the door blew away in the wind, leaving the large Clemons framed in the doorway.

“Maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, ‘I want to play with your band,’ and he said, ‘Sure, you do anything you want,’” Clemons once recalled. “The first song we did was an early version of ‘Spirit in the Night.’ Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything. We just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for.”

And once Bruce found Clarence Clemons and let that wild and free tenor saxophone build out and blast free his musical blueprint, he finally achieved his musical goals. If you ever had had the great chance to see and experience the band and Clemons in full flight on, say, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” or “Born to Run” or “Jungleland,” then you know the spine-tingling magic that could run wild and free.

Clarence’s sax and Helms’ steel guitar were the magical keys that unlocked two great musical treasure houses that had been missing a special tool. Those two breakthroughs let two great music pioneers fully express what had been building inside them.

Who’s gonna fill the big musical shoes these days? I know Bon Jovi can fill the arenas, but that’s not the same thing. Kenny Chesney fills the stadiums and does it better and bigger.

But it’s the musical legacies of Led Zep, the Beatles, the Stones, Bruce, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and that are going unreplaced. Coldplay? Radiohead as successor? Don’t think so. Where are the musical anthems?

In country, Waylon’s dead, Jones and Willie and their ilk are not what they once were. George Strait and Alan Jackson and Reba and a few other credible artists are approaching AARP status. They have no credible successors on their level. There are pretenders but no genuine contenders.

Garth and Shania have retreated to the well-paid sanctuary of Las Vegas. What’s left? There are no more giants stalking the earth.

The few remaining rock dinosaurs now retread their old classics in arenas, minus any original spark or teeth. Welcome to Jurassic Park, the musical wing.

Don Helms and Clarence Clemons may have been the last great examples of the indispensable sideman, the ones who transformed a good artist into a great one.