DONS HELMS: Add Some Steel Guitar, Don Helms and the Songwriting of Hank Williams, Sr.

In August of 2008, Don Helms died. As one of country music’s greatest pre-pedal steel guitar players, Helms is essential to ten of Hank Williams’ 11 No. 1 hits, as well as major hits by Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, Stonewall Jackson and many more. Till the end of his life he continued to move live audiences with his virtuoso renderings of the country standards that bore his indelible imprint.

In August of 2008, Don Helms died. As one of country music’s greatest pre-pedal steel guitar players, Helms is essential to ten of Hank Williams’ 11 No. 1 hits, as well as major hits by Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, Stonewall Jackson and many more. Till the end of his life he continued to move live audiences with his virtuoso renderings of the country standards that bore his indelible imprint.

Equally important to songwriters who really want to know, Helms was one of Hank’s buddies, and as such, he held the key to the burning question of whether Hank Williams was really our greatest country songwriter, or was he merely an instrument for Fred Rose’s publishing ambitions.

A little background: Hank may have been skinny and undernourished looking, but his life was a tough neighborhood. When he hired the band Helms played with, then called the Alabama Rhythm Boys, back in 1943, the first thing he did was arm them.

“We walked out the front door of this music store and around the corner,” Helms recalled. “We walked around the corner into a hock shop, and Hank said, ‘Jake, have you got anymore of those blackjacks back there? Give me five of them.’ And he passed those clubs out to us guys and said, ‘Boys, if you’re gonna play with me you’re gonna need these.'”

So Hank was not afraid of tough places, but did he write the songs he had his name on? Some say there’s no way he could have written “So Lonesome I Could Cry”-that the song had to have been the creation of Hank’s mentor and publisher, veteran songwriter Fred Rose, who wrote “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain,” probably wrote “Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy” and had a long and honored track record as both a pop and country tunesmith. Don Helms was there when most of the Hank Williams songbook was being written, and he knew.

“I don’t know where he’d get his ideas-he’d just come up with an idea and he’d start writin’ it. One day in the car he said, ‘Don, what’ll rhyme with this? Today I passed you on the street.’ And I said, ‘and I smelled your stinkin’ feet.’ Hank rejected Helms’ contribution, but the song became one of Williams’ greatest classics, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You).”

“He’d just come up with something and sometimes he wouldn’t say anything to anybody, he’d just attempt to write it. And sometimes he’d succeed in writin’ it but he’d usually at some time or another approach Fred Rose and let Fred look it over, and whatever advice Fred would give him, he might take or might not, but eventually they would smooth it out. Fred’d say, ‘Hank, this thing is gonna sing better if you’ll say so-and-so’ and Hank might say, ‘Oh no, I don’t know about that.’ And then later Hank would try it and it’d work good.

“Fred said, ‘Damn it, I told you!’ and Hank said, ‘Well, I can’t just sing anything, you’re liable to tell me anything!’ and then he’d say, ‘And chances are I’d believe it.’ They gouged each other a lot, but they had a great respect for each other. I always saw that.”

But did they ever walk into a room together for the purpose of co-writing a song, close the door behind them, and later emerge with a classic?

“I don’t think I ever saw Hank with anybody, say, ‘Let’s go write a song.’ One Sunday morning we left Nashville to go to Birmingham to do a matinee and a night, and he said, ‘Hand me that tablet up there.’ And he wrote down, ‘Hey, good lookin’, what you cookin” and before we got to Birmingham it was finished. As far as I know Fred had no touch-up to do on that.

“My favorite song he ever wrote was ‘Cold Cold Heart.’ If you think about it, the lyric to ‘Cold Cold Heart,’see how many two syllable words are in that song. Very, very few.

“‘Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold cold heart.’ Verses and the choruses had very few two syllable words. ‘I tried so hard my dear to show that you’re my everything.’ One three-syllable word.”

The melodies of these great songs were more proof of Hank’s authorship of his songs. “The melodies were melodies that anybody could sing,” said Helms. “Or hum or whistle. And the words were just about that simple. I think the stories Hank told in his songs fit so many people. Nearly everybody in an audience acted as if Hank were singin’ to them alone. Everybody loved Hank, but a lot of them loved him for different things. They liked his songs, they liked the tune of his songs, they liked the way he shook his leg when he sang-he was everybody’s guy next door.

For those a little squeamish about Fred Rose’s “editing,” I might point out that Scribner’s’ Maxwell Perkins took a very active role in editing the works of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other first-rate authors. I might also add that in the early days of the Nashville music industry, many publishers worked hard to help their writers polish their songs and took no writing credit for their labors. In fact, Helms pointed to a later experience in his career, with another great artist/songwriter.

Years after Hank’s death, Don Helms went into business with a prominent country duo called the Wilburn Brothers, in a successful publishing venture called Sure-Fire Music. Early in her career, Loretta Lynn came to Sure-Fire and the Wilburns agreed to help her in her career.

After they helped Loretta get a deal on Decca, Loretta recorded a considerable number of her own hits, but she didn’t write them in a vacuum. “Teddy and Loretta worked together quite a bit on stuff like that,” Helms remembered. “Teddy was in the same capacity [to Loretta] that Fred Rose was to Hank Williams. She would go to him for advice and he would offer advice. She might take it or she might not, you know, but they worked pretty good together.”

None of this is written to diminish the accomplishments of Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn. Quite the contrary. Hank and Loretta stand out as unique talents with their own stories to tell. But even the greatest talents can stand to have someone to hear their songs and present another perspective on them. In his time, Don Helms bore witness that Fred Rose did not ghost write Hank Williams songs, and Teddy Wilburn did not ghost write Loretta Lynn songs. Both Hank and Loretta were authentic creators of their songs, but it seems fair to say that as critics and editors, Rose and Wilburn helped Hank and Loretta make their songs a little bit better. It’s also fair to say that most of us could benefit from having that extra “ear” out there to help us make our songs the best they can be.