Don Helms, steel guitar master, passes on.
October 7, 2008 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Don Helms, the steel guitarist in Hank Williams' Drifting Cowboys band, died on August 11. He was 81. Don provided the smooth-as-silk string stylings for over 100 of Hank's tunes, including Hey Good Lookin' and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. See Don demonstrate some of that steel guitar goodness in a snazzy version of Blues Stay Away From Me, or this instrumental rendition of Hank's Cold Cold Heart, or this sprightly little number, Fireball Mail.

Also, don't miss this dusty old relic from the early days of TV, the Kate Smith Evening Hour, presented by new Wonder-Sudsing BAB-O! There's a great live version of Cold Cold Heart, and the duet with Hank Williams and Anita Carter that closes the clip is lovely: a rare chance to see Hank in duet with a female singer. Check it out.

And just for good measure, let's give the bass player some, eh? Drifting Cowboy Lum York.
posted by flapjax at midnite (9 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
That duet is great.

I've always loved the sound of steel guitar, and Don Helms really was a master of the instrument. Sorry to see him go.
posted by Forktine at 8:58 AM on October 7, 2008


I grew up with my folks' 1970s country music and just hated it. Then I heard Hank Williams in the soundtrack of Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” and was instantly hooked by the sound of the Mr. Helms’ steel.

After some digging I discovered that while I couldn’t stomach modern country, I loved old country, hillbilly and western swing. The dividing line for me seemed to be the sound of the non-pedal steel vs. the pedal steel. The pedal steel started taking over in the late 1950s and eventually dominated.

It’s a shame, because the instruments have such dramatically different sounds. The non-pedal steel like Mr. Helms was known for has a sincere, direct sound that I just don’t hear from pedal steelers. Helms himself later moved to the pedal steel for many years and just didn't sound the same, Thankfully in the last few years he moved back to the non-pedal and he still played it beautifully.

I’ve spent the last eight years learning the instrument (on a National double 8) and it has been a wonderful journey. Thank you Mr. Helms.

FWIW, it was actually Jerry Byrd on the recording of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Helms himself played on many, many recordings after Hank died though. My favorite is his short intro on Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.” Just lures you right in.
posted by quarterframer at 9:38 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Man, what a player.

Thanks as always Flapjax.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:04 AM on October 7, 2008

posted by Mental Wimp at 11:24 AM on October 7, 2008

posted by roll truck roll at 3:12 PM on October 7, 2008

I've never played a pedal steel (or "electric table" as Red Knuckles called it), or even stood close to someone who was playing one. What's the most difficult thing about playing one of these? What's the barrier to entry that keeps you or me or any other guitar player from just sitting down and getting the hang of it one afternoon?
posted by Faze at 3:15 PM on October 7, 2008

RIP sir, a beautiful player indeed.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:13 PM on October 7, 2008

And wow, quarterfarmer, I've never heard of anyone being so strongly repulsed by (what I consider) the gorgeous sound of the pedal steel! Those 60's-70's George Jones sides don't do anything for you?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:19 PM on October 7, 2008

What's the barrier to entry that keeps you or me or any other guitar player from just sitting down and getting the hang of it one afternoon?

2 necks with different tunings that are flat like lap steels, certain chords available only through footpedal pitch adjustment and/or angled slide, other foot on the volume pedal to produce the characteristic swells.

If you're cool with that, no reason not to give it a shot. Although I'd say as a bass player who "got the hang" of the cello in an afternoon — more like 15 minutes, actually — I may require a little more practice before Rostropovich's reputation is in serious danger.
posted by Wolof at 11:35 PM on October 7, 2008

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