The last of the Drifting Cowboys has passed away.
Don Helms, steel guitar legend and the last living member of Hank Williams' genre-defining backup band the Drifting Cowboys, passed away Aug. 11 in Nashville from complications from heart surgery and diabetes. Helms was 81 and lived in Hendersonville, Tenn., at the time of his passing.
Revered for his ability to pull emotional, sometimes haunting progressions from his instrument, Helms played on over 100 Hank Williams compositions, including 10 No. 1 hits.
"Hey, Good Lookin," "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry," and "Your Cheatin' Heart" are just a few songs by Williams that Helms graced with his double neck 1948 Gibson Console Grande. These songs not only set the template for modern country music, they also set the bar so high that such art may never again be duplicated.
"After the great tunes and Hank's mournful voice, the next thing you think about in those songs is the steel guitar," said Bill Lloyd, the curator of stringed instruments at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. "It is the quintessential honky-tonk steel sound -- tuneful, aggressive, full of attitude."
While Helms was well known in Music City and was definitely a first-call session musician in Nashville, he also had a strong connection to Hardy -- the Wilburn Brothers.
In 1957, Helms joined the Nashville Tennesseans, which was the backing band for the local-boys-made-big -- the Wilburn Brothers.
Not only did Helms perform with Doyle and Teddy Wilburn, he also partnered with the Wilburns in the late 50s to form the Wil-Helm Talent Agency. Through this organization, the careers of Sonny James, the Osborne Brothers and Loretta Lynn were pushed into motion.
Helms' friendship with the Wilburn Brothers led him back to Hardy the past couple of years, as Helms and his wife Hazel were key parts of the first two Wilburn Brothers Tributes held at Loberg Park.
As a matter of fact, Helms' very last public performance was this past May 24 at Loberg Park, during the second Wilburn Brothers Tribute.
More than just a session player, Helms is widely credited in helping country music move away from its hillbilly string band roots of the 1930s.
Helms also had a pretty fair sense of humor.
On "The Ballad of Hank," a Helms-penned tune off Hank Williams Jr.'s 1981 Album, The Pressure is On, Helms lamented the fact that he'd been fired by both Hanks; Hank Sr. in the 1950s and by Hank Jr. in 1972. The light-hearted song, set to the tune of "The Battle of New Orleans," was a perfect vehicle for Helms' wry, good-ole-boy delivery.
He also worked with Patsy Cline and the Louvin Brothers on a regular basis and more recently, Helms' playing can be heard on cuts from rock artists Bon Jovi and Kid Rock.
At the time of his passing, Helms was going back to his roots. He was working on an album of Hank Williams songs with Vince Gill.
Helms is a member of the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.