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Don Helms Interview

Don Helms

An Impromptu Conversation with Don Helms


This interview took place at the 2002 International Steel Guitar Association in St. Louis.

Gib: I’m with the world renowned Don Helms. Taught Hank Williams everything he knew.

Don: Me and old Hank went lots of places together. Everything I am or expect to be is because of my past association with Hank Williams. I worked with him a long time. His music was what I loved to play, and the fact that I played it, and people heard it on his records; they use me on dates and sessions.

Gib: Don, I think you are playing better than ever.

Don: Well, I appreciate it. I still play the tune to a song. It seems that so many of the guys that are so capable now days, don’t get to play the melody. They just get to play licks and phrases. That’s too bad. When a writer writes a song, it’s beautiful. The musicians don’t get to play beautiful choruses on it. They play just a little fill-in and licks. That’s too bad.

Gib: Speaking of beautiful licks. Tonight it was Don Helms and Lloyd Green. People were levitating off their seats.

Don: Well, so was I. I got a little carried away at one time up there. Playing those songs got me in a very somber mood. I was thinking about the rest of the Drifting Cowboys that are no longer with us. I was thinking about Hank. I was thinking about the audience reception of what we were doing. It was very evident, and it just tore me up. Lloyd Green playing that great stuff didn’t help me much.

Gib: Billy Robinson just dropped in. Billy, how are you?

Billy: I’m doing great. I’ve met more friends, had more fun. I can’t believe Bud Isaacs, Don Helms, and all the great steel players from my era are here.

Gib: I’m talking to two hall of fame members, and you both are not pedal steel players. You just make all that music from scratch.

Don: We both have been pedal steel players. I played pedal steel thirty something years.

Billy: I played for twenty years.

Don: And we both went back to what we love.

Gib: Sounded great tonight. How about that Don Helms and Lloyd Green thing, Billy?

Billy: I tell you what. That tone, that’s the best tone. It cut through. It was absolutely gorgeous. That was a Gibson Console, and it couldn’t have been any prettier. It cut through that audience. Well, you saw them stand up - a standing ovation.

Gib: Don, you or the sound man had it better than it’s ever been. It was beautiful out there in the audience tonight.

Don: Well, it sounded okay to me. I had an amp in my ear. But for Billy Robinson to say that. I know how critical he is of a clear sound, and I appreciate that Billy.

Billy: It was beautiful. It wasn’t just clear; it was crystal clear. You could hear every note. One of the things about playing non-pedal is the bar slants that you do. It’s beautiful. I watch for things like that, and I listen for the tone, and I watch your technique, and it’s great.

Don: That’s why I was shook up. Billy Robinson was watching me.

Gib: Let me tell you something else fellows, and I’m sure you saw it Billy, but I saw Lloyd Green doing some slant bar tonight, and I had not seen him do it before. Am I just blind?

Don: Lloyd was using both hands and both feet. I had never seen him play that many slants.

Gib: I thought his elbows were going, too!

Billy: Wait a minute, he’s also got knees he uses. He’s a great player, and his technique is beautiful, but he does bar slants. He’s got 7 or 8 different ways he’s making that music, and it’s all good.

Don: I tell you a technique that Lloyd’s got. He can play a bunch of busy notes, and then he gets to a point where he lets the guitar carry the rest of it. The fingers just rest. Have you noticed that?Billy: I noticed that.

Gib: No question about it, it was one fantastic show tonight. This was pretty close to the same show that Don and Lloyd did at the NTSGA Superjam. The same feeling went through this audience. When you guys did "You Win Again," there was electricity going from chair to chair.

Billy: You’ve got thousands and thousands of people out there that bought thousand and thousands of records that remember that, too. You’ve got lot of folks here, not lots of teenagers, but should be some. Hopefully in the future, we will get some young folks doing this and listening to things that Don Helms did in his prime. It’s just a great feeling to be here.

Gib: All the Drifting Cowboys are gone but you.

Don: All of the Cowboys. From the time Hank became famous on record, from then until his death, there were only six Drifting Cowboys. Hank and five Cowboys. I’m still here. I feel great. I ain’t going nowhere. Gib: Well, you look great too, and I noticed you showed up with that beautiful young thing sitting next to you. Who is this lady?

Hazel: I’m Hazel. I’m his wife.

Gib: I’m so glad to hear that.

Hazel: Well, thank you. I hope he hadn’t got another girl hanging around anywhere.

Gib: You’re the only one I’ve ever seen, Hazel.

Don: Gib, you’re the only one to ever get her to say a word on a mic.

Gib: I had to embarrass her, make her blush to get it done. Isn’t it great to see a woman still blush?

Billy: One of the Drifting Cowboys, Jerry Rivers, was one of my best friends. We had a band together. We worked in a little band we called the Eagle Rangers back when he was 14 years old. Jerry worked with us until he went to work with Hank Williams. Jerry has passed away, but he was a good buddy and a good friend.Gib: That touches me. Don, I could see emotion and hear it in your voice tonight when you were talking about the Drifting Cowboys.

Don: I got shook up. I got to thinking about the Cowboys and the way they went and the way Hank went. I could feel the magnetism from the audience. The sounds were good, the lights were good, Lloyd Green was good, and I just got shook up. I really did.

Gib: You had all of us out front shook up too. Thanks, Don.

Don: Thank you, Gib.

Billy Robinson

Nashville Tennessee Steel Guitar Association
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