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Continued: Don Helms' and Hank Williams' enduring musical legacy

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The singer, who thankfully didn’t try to imitate Hank that night did a serviceable job, coming from the Tommy Duncan-Ray Price school of vocalists. The real thrill for me though, lay in hearing Helms, Rivers and McNett interact. Hank Williams, who passed away years before anyone from my generation could have bought his records, already seemed like an almost mythological character to me. I could hardly believe I was sitting there, listening to three of the members of his band, right here in McAlester inside S. Arch Thompson Auditorium — the same ones who had performed with him onstage at his 1949 Grand Ole Opry debut!

After a fantastic concert I went backstage. I wasn’t going to miss this chance to go to the source. Who knows why people “hit it off” with one person and not another? While Rivers and McNett were polite and friendly, I felt an immediate kinship with Don Helms. Maybe he could sense my intensity at trying to divine the mojo behind the band’s recordings with Hank Williams.

I could not have been more intent if I’d had an opportunity to talk with Leonardo da Vinci about painting the Mona Lisa, or if I had a chance to ask William Shakespeare about writing “Hamlet” — such is my esteem for the music created by Hank Williams and his band of Drifting Cowboys.

Our conversation went something like this:

Recording studios of today have the capability of recording and dubbing hundreds of tracks. Why can’t they capture the “feel” that Hank and The Drifting Cowboys did in the late 1940s and early 1950s, often working in studios limited to one or two tracks?

Helms, a modest man, did not have a definitive answer, but he did provide some insight.

“Some of those studios we worked in were about the size of motel rooms,” Helms said. During some of the performances, there were times they ran the vocal microphones through guitar amplifiers, he said, because they did not have a PA system available to use exclusively for the vocals.

I took his answer to mean that Hank Williams and The Drifting Cowboys didn’t rely on technology to produce their unique sound. It came from the heart. Musicians gathered around the singer and they recorded everything “live” in the studio — so unlike today, when instruments are often recorded separately a track at a time, and everything is mixed together later. Many times, with the availability of hundreds of tracks and the capability to “fix” every nuance, everything comes out sounding perfect — perfectly sterile, that is.

I also wanted to know if there was any truth behind some of the Hank Williams legends.

Did Hank really ever smash his guitar over somebody’s head during a honky-tonk brawl?

Yes, he really did, especially in the early days, Helms said, with the hint of a smile at the memory of some long-ago Alabama honky-tonk smashup.

But the thing that really floored me occurred when I mentioned to Helms that while many of Hanks’ songs touched on the blues, a few even had a jazzy feel to them — such as “Lovesick Blues,” for example.

Helms told me how much Hank liked the blues — no surprise there — but then he said Hank also loved jazz. Back in the Alabama honky-tonks, where he and Hank were getting started, they sometimes had horn players in the band, Helms told me.

“Get out of town!” I said. “You’re kidding me, right?” Helms assured me he was perfectly serious. Hank would have liked to have used horns throughout his career, but that would never have been allowed by the Grand Ole Opry, Helms said.

In retrospect, Helms comments about Williams’ love of jazz and horns doesn’t seem so unusual. After all, “Lovesick Blues” was an old vaudeville, show tune, dating back to the 1920s. Both Hank and jazz great Louis Armstrong recorded “My Buckets Got a Hole in It.” Helms always cited his main inspiration on steel guitar as Leon McAulliffe, the steel guitar virtuoso with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys — a group which often used horns and incorporated jazz, blues and country music elements into the musical gumbo known as Western swing.

A few years ago, a newly-discovered home-recording surfaced of a 14-year-old Hank Williams singing a medley of the blues song “Fan It” coupled with the Irving Berlin song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He also recorded “St. Louis Blues” as a teenager — not exactly your typical country music fare.

As we ended our conversation in McAlester that night, Helms issued an invitation that’s not unusual for this part of the country, to come and visit him sometime.

“If you and your family are ever in Nashville,” he said, “come and see me.”

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Continued: Continued: Don Helms' and Hank Williams' enduring musical legacy

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“You bet,” I answered, not thinking it was really a serious invitation — but what Helms did next proved to me he meant what he said. He asked for a piece of paper from one of my ubiquitous yellow tablets. Then, borrowing a pen, he jotted something down on it.

“There’s my home number,” he said. “If ya’ll ever get to Nashville, give me a call.”

I never did make it to Nashville while Helms was still living, but if I had, I would have definitely made that phone call. He seemed like the kind of genuine guy who would invite you inside for a piece of apple pie and a glass of iced tea and a little conversation about some of the greatest recorded music of all time — although he would never have called it that.

I will though.

Speaking of Helms’ legacy, country singer Marty Stuart expressed it very well when he said “The sound of his steel guitar is as much a part of our atmosphere as the wind, trains or church bells.”

Helms didn’t quit playing or recording after Hank Williams died. In addition to their timeless work together, his distinctive steel guitar sound can be heard on Patsy Clines’ “Walkin’ After Midnight” and Ray Price’s “I’ll Be There.” He’s also the steel guitarist on Loretta Lynn’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil.”

Helms, who died in 2008 in Nashville, played up until the end, even recording with Kid Rock.

“Don Helms’ legacy will not only be as one of the founding fathers of country music, but also as one of the truest gentlemen to ever walk the face of the earth,” Stuart said.

I agree, wholeheartedly.

Contact James Beaty at