NPR logo Don Helms, 1927-2008

Don Helms, 1927-2008

You've probably heard the Hank Williams classic "Your Cheatin' Heart." The song is one of the best examples of the honky-tonk sound Williams helped create, due in no small part to the signature steel guitar that opens the track. The man behind that steel guitar — the same one that appeared on so many Hank Williams tunes, including "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Cold Cold Heart" — was Don Helms. We learned today that Helms has died at the age of 81.

Hank Williams with Don Helms on steel, performing "Cold Cold Heart":

Helms was one of the few surviving members of Hank Williams' Drifting Cowboys band, the group that backed Williams on his recordings and live performances in the '40s and '50s. Williams died in 1953, but Helms and the other band members continued to play. Helms appeared on recordings by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Lefty Frizzell, including the songs "Walkin' After Midnight" and "Long Black Veil."

In an interview with the Lafayette INDsider a couple years ago, Helms described how "Your Cheatin' Heart" came to be: "I played (Hank Williams) an intro, and we sang the song through one time. Nobody made a mistake bad enough to require us to do it again. We went through it one time, never played it on the stage — just that one time in the studio. After that, I never saw him alive again. The record didn't come out until after Hank had died."

Helms died of an apparent heart attack Monday in Nashville.