Don Helms Tribute March 8 at Texas Troubadour Theatre

To my dear departed friend Don Helms: this day was to honor YOU for a lifetime of incomparable music and the most generous and kindly spirit most of us have ever known. And it was also a day to honor and appreciate Miss Hazel, your beloved wife and a remarkable woman in her own right. We will never, ever forget you, Don, and the impact you had on all of our lives. I hope you were watching with Hank and the rest of the Drifting Cowboys. Happy Trails to you 'til we meet again!

March 8, 2009 was the most special of days. This musical tribute to steel guitar legend Don Helms and his wife Hazel presented by me and my dear friends Jesse Lee and Rebecca Jones (of Robert's Western World on lower Broadway in downtown Nashville) succeeded beyond all of our expectations. Ray Price and Bobby Bare are treasures and we still cannot believe our good fortune that they donated their time and talents to make this such a memorable event for everyone involved.

And what better place to honor Don than at the Ernest Tubb Texas Troubadour Theatre. Don played the "Midnight Jamboree" at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop with Hank from 1949 through '52 and then many, many times after that, all the way through 2007. He and Ernest Tubb were very close. In fact, Don recorded Letters Have No Arms with Ernest even before he recorded with Hank.

Just a few words from Don about Ernest Tubb... Don played steel guitar for him nearly a year and said he never worked with a man he admired any more than Ernest Tubb. "He was the kind of guy wouldn't give you no crap and wouldn't let anybody else give you any either," Don wrote in his memoirs Settin' the Woods on Fire.

David McCormick is the owner of the Ernest Tubb Record Shops and the Texas Troubadour Theatre and generously offered the theatre to us at no charge for our tribute show. Not only that, but he was there the day of the show greeting folks and making sure everyone had whatever it was they needed. David, we cannot thank you enough.

This tribute show would truly not have been possible without the dedication of Jesse Lee and Rebecca Jones. Jesse Lee and Rebecca held the very first tribute show for Don at Robert's Western World on the first Sunday of October, 2008. For most first Sunday afternoons of the last year of Don's life, he had been playing steel guitar with Jesse Lee and some members of Jesse Lee's band Brazilbilly at Robert's. It was always a wonderful show, with guests of all stature stopping by to sit in for a song or two with the great Don Helms. Before every show, Jesse Lee and Rebecca would pick Don and Miss Hazel up in their 1952 Cadillac, take them to breakfast, play the show, then take them to dinner and drive them home. They became very close during this time, and Jesse and Rebecca were privileged to hear many of Don's road stories up close and personal.

Ray Price, Don, and Hazel Helms have been best of friends for more than 50 years. It was Hank Williams who brought Ray Price to Tennessee and got him on the Grand Ole Opry. After Hank's death, the entire Drifting Cowboys band went to work for Ray Price. Ray often stayed at Don and Hazel's house, and once left a signature cigarette burn on one of Hazel's dressers that is there to this day! I was at Hazel's house after Don's death when she got a phone call from Ray Price, who was so broken up he could barely speak. Last fall, when asked if he would perform at a tribute for Don/fundraiser for Miss Hazel, Ray said "Yes" without hesitation, and told us right then we could use his name to promote the show. Besides considering his voice one of the most beautiful and memorable in all of music history, I will always think of Ray Price as the kind of best friend everyone would be proud to have.

In 1993 I wrote the notes for Bear Family Records' box set on Bobby Bare entitled "All American Boy" and fell in love with his music, his humor, and his completely engaging personality. Waylon Jennings told me, "There ain't nobody like Bare," and anyone who knows him will agree. He's smart, laid-back, funny, and always himself. Bare is good friends and fishing buddies with Ray Price, and when Ray told him about the Don Helms tribute, he offered to join the show. Bare didn't know Don all that well, but wished he had. Wow! Ray Price AND Bobby Bare. How lucky could we get?

Jesse Lee and his fabulous band Brazilbilly were the house band for the tribute show, and all the guests who played with them considered themselves lucky to have some of the best musicians in Nashville backing them up. The Brazilbilly band members, who donated their time for the show (as did all the guests) were: Jesse Lee on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, David Tanner on vocals and doghouse bass, "Pappy" (Eugene) Merritts on fiddle, Chris Casello on lead guitar, Danny Erkman on drums, Josh Hedley on fiddle, and Chris Scruggs on steel guitar.

Jesse Lee was also the tribute's musical director and did an amazing job keeping everyone to a very tight schedule, seeing that the stage was reset for the various acts, and at the same time assuring that the music he was playing and singing was pure and perfect traditional country.

Robert's Western World is the only honky-tonk on lower Broadway in downtown Nashville that plays only traditional country music, live day and night 7 days a week beginning at 11 a.m. You can catch Jesse Lee and Brazilbilly on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. 'til the wee hours of the morning.

The very beautiful and talented Rebecca Buchanan Jones is Jesse's wife and partner at Robert's. She has considerable experience with putting shows together, and jumped right in to arrange ticket sales, catering, and all the small details involved in putting such an event together. During the show, she ran herself ragged being sure the needs of the artists and patrons were met and blessedly allowed me time to sit and enjoy large portions of the show. She's got a beautiful voice, too, which I'll talk about later on.

THE EMCEE:

Eddie Stubbs is a legend himself in the world of country music. He had agreed to be a part of this tribute even before we had confirmed the headliners to be Ray Price and Bobby Bare. Eddie was close friend to Don and Hazel Helms and Don had been a guest many times on Eddie's evening and late night shows over WSM radio broadcast from the Opryland Hotel. Eddie has earned the title "the dean of country music" because of his extensive knowledge of its history, recordings, artists, and culture. I don't think ANYONE is or could be a better interviewer than WSM's Eddie Stubbs.

THE GUESTS:

Gail Davies: Gail Davies is a rare female producer of her own records since the 1970s, winning awards, charting songs, and earning acclaim from her fellow artists. At Robert's October '08 tribute to Don, she volunteered to appear on the show scheduled for the following spring. I have been a fan of hers ever since I arrived in Nashville in 1984.

Chris Scruggs: The son of Gail Davies and the grandson of Earl Scruggs, Chris takes his strong musical inheritance and turns it into a brilliance all his own. He is a traditional country music virtuoso on steel guitar, guitar, bass, fiddle, drums, and vocals. Don Helms took him under his wing for awhile and Chris continues to honor Don's steel guitar tradition at Robert's Western World and everywhere he plays music.

David & Terri Church: A world-renowned Hank Williams tribute artist, David also writes and sings his own songs and others by traditional country artists as well. He's a star on RFD TV and across the U.S. and overseas. His wife Terri is also a talented singer/songwriter and manages both of their careers. David and Terri worked many times with Don Helms and Don is featured playing steel guitar on David's Hank Williams tribute CD "A Legend Froze in Time." Terri offered her help to plan this event early on - even before Ray Price came on board - and for that I'll always be grateful.

Andy Norman: It was Andy, who shares manager Rose Waters with Ray Price, who spoke to Rose who spoke to Ray Price about headlining this tribute for his dear friends Don and Hazel. Thanks Andy for your part in making this happen! Andy is from Montgomery, Alabama, and has a rich, deep country voice. He has been a part of many Hank Williams tribute shows and was the last person to tour with Don Helms.

David Langley: David is also represented by Rose Waters, and although he did not know Don personally, he was a fan and anxious to be a part of the tribute. David so impressed Ray Price with his great singing and hot guitar licks that the day after the concert he was hired as the newest Cherokee Cowboy and will be touring with Ray Price and Willie Nelson in the U.S. and Canada! Congratulations David!

Ron Elliott: Ron played steel guitar live and on recordings for Stonewall Jackson, Jack Green, Charlie Louvin, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, and many more. For a number of years, he worked for Sho-Bud Guitars, designing new models of steel guitar and steel guitar amps. He and Don were very close friends and released an album together of gospel steel guitar called "In the Garden." Ron, his wife Leslie, and Don Helms were among the original founders of R.O.P.E.

Pete Wade: Pete was another of Don Helms' closest friends. Don was working with Ray Price's band when they discovered the 18-year-old guitar whiz in Norfolk Virginia. Don says there's no telling how many #1 records - country, pop, rock, and all - that he has played on. Pete was sitting in playing guitar on Ray Price's portion of the show.

MORE THANKS:

To Rose "Vegas" Waters for all her patience, support, and advice during the months of planning this concert.

To all the volunteers who took tickets, provided security, and sold merchandise Sunday afternoon: Buddy Owens, Lindsay Burkhalter, Lauren Wray Grisham, Michael Martin, Calvin and Virginia Buchanan (Rebecca's parents), Riley Hanratty, Gail Norman, and Patrick Horton.

To Hatch Show Print for awesome posters!

To Martha Howell (Miss Hazel's sister) for her constant good humor and support.

To the sound guys Morgan Anderson and John Bacon, who did an AWESOME job changing the stage, keeping to our tight time schedule, and making everyone sound as good as they're supposed to!

For publicity: To Leslie Elliott for including an announcement in the R.O.P.E. newsletter; also to the Tennessean and the Nashville Scene for their coverage.

To the Malpass Brothers, who had toured with Don and were the very FIRST to offer to do a Don Helms tribute show, but were opening for Merle Haggard in Montgomery on the very same day.

To Terry Huval, Dennis Pardoe, Lynn Owsley, and Al Cotter - sorry we ran out of space and time and you were not able to be part of the show.

To Billy and Carolyn Robinson, and Danny and Patricia Hammers for all their support with Miss Hazel.

To Ferris Photographics for covering our event photographically. Thanks Johnny!

To EVERYONE who bought a ticket to the show and/or made a contribution to the Don Helms Memorial Fund... we hope you were more than satisfied with your investment! We couldn't have had a successful day without you. Miss Hazel thanks you, as well.
 

Now... you may think I'm done, but I haven't even talked about the show itself yet!!! So here goes...

ACT I

Beginning at 11:30, the Texas Troubadour Theatre cleared from Sunday morning Cowboy Church and right away the sound/stage guys Morgan and John were there to begin reorganizing the stage. Jesse Lee arrived soon after that and some of the other performers began to trickle in. The stage was set for the first act of the afternoon. Miss Hazel and family arrived around 1 p.m. and took their seats front and center.

At 2:00 p.m. sharp Eddie Stubbs appeared on the stage to welcome everyone and talk briefly about Don Helms and why we were all there.

A few minutes later, Jesse Lee and Brazilbilly opened the show with Marty Robbins' classic hit El Paso. Jesse Lee is a huge Marty Robbins fan and sings Marty's songs so beautifully you'll get chills up your spine. If anyone reading this has not had the thrill of listening to Jesse Lee and Brazilbilly LIVE at Robert's on a weekend night, you've got a real treat awaiting you. Another love of Jesse's is cowboy music, and next he sang an old western song called Doggone Cowboy. Doghouse bass player David Tanner closed out the set with Hank's Hey Good Lookin'.

Eddie Stubbs introduced the first guest, David Church, who has a huge fan base that includes me and Lycrecia Williams Hoover. David can REALLY make Hank Williams come alive in such a respectful way. He sang Settin' The Woods On Fire, Honky Tonk Blues, and Moanin' The Blues. At some point, I leaned over to Lycrecia who was sitting next to me and asked her if he had the right moves. She smiled and said yes, he did. We were sorry there wasn't time for Terri Church to join her husband on the stage.

Next Eddie introduced Andy Norman, who has a presence on the stage to match his physical size and rich voice. He performed: Hag's Ramblin' Fever, Lefty's I Never Go Around Mirrors, and Gene Watson's signature song Farewell Party, written by Lawton Williams.

Eddie then welcomed David Langley, who wowed the crowd with his great vocals on Merle Haggard's Workin' Man Blues and another Bakersfield legend Buck Owens' Together Again accompanied by his equally great guitar playing.

Next, Eddie Stubbs introduced singer/songwriter/producer Gail Davies with her son Chris Scruggs (the grandson of Earl Scruggs) accompanying her on steel guitar. I am very partial to the song I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You because of the book I wrote with Lycrecia about her parents Hank and Audrey's undying love, but as many times as I've heard the song since Hank sang it, I've never heard it sung better or with more feeling than by Ms. Davies. WOW! Lycrecia and I just loved it. Next, Gail Davies sang one of her own hit songs, I'll Be There (If You Ever Want me), which had also been a hit for Ray Price (he wrote it with Rusty Gabbard) with Don Helms playing steel on the original recording! Gail Davies rocks!

Ron Elliott was introduced next by Eddie Stubbs. Backed by Brazilbilly, he played a couple of steel guitar instrumentals: Curley Williams' Half As Much (a big hit for Hank) and the gospel tune Old Rugged Cross from the album he and Don did together. Ron remained on the stage to play steel guitar behind Jesse Lee singing They'll Never Take Her Love From Me. What a beautiful sound they made together!

The amazing Chris Scruggs then sang a couple of songs: the Louvins' Cash On The Barrelhead and Hank's Long Gone Lonesome Blues. I love this guy.

Now, we're back to the lovely and wonderful Rebecca Buchanan Jones, who joined Brazilbilly on the stage to sing Patsy Cline's huge hit song Walkin' After Midnight. We don't hear Rebecca sing very often, but it is always a GREAT pleasure. Eddie Stubbs had reminded Jesse Lee and I the previous Wednesday night when we were on his radio show that not only did Don Helms play steel guitar on the recording, leading with what will always remain one of country music's most recognizable intros, but the steel guitar was the lead instrument through the entire song - you won't hear any fiddles or piano, only Don on steel guitar. Rebecca had the chance to sing that song with Don every Sunday he came to Robert's. I know he loved to play it for her, too.

 

To close out the first act, Chris Scruggs did what Don did at the end of nearly every one of his shows - he played Cold Cold Heart "a capella." Hazel cried because it sounded so much like Don.

A brief intermission followed while the stage was reorganized.

ACT II

Eddie Stubbs introduced Bobby Bare and his band, reminding us about all the great songs Bobby has recorded over the past 50+ years, how he had furthered the careers of Waylon Jennings and songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newberry, and Tom T. Hall, and been among the very first country artists to travel overseas, where in some parts of the world he's as big a star as Elvis. Eddie mentioned Bobby's longtime collaboration with dear friend Shel Silverstein on albums such as the early country concept album "Lullabys, Legends, and Lies" and a children's album titled "In the Kitchen." Now I'm not really sure what Eddie said as he introduced Bobby Bare at the Don Helms tribute and what he said introducing him the following Monday night as part of WSM's "Intimate Evenings" series, but one time or another, Eddie said all this and more about Bobby Bare.

Bare's band: Gary Kubal on drums, Kenny Cramer on lead guitar, and Lee Marks on bass and back-up vocals. Thanks guys!

I'm not sure about the order of the songs Bobby Bare sang and I might not have remembered every one, plus I can't begin to repeat the funny things he said and the stories he told, but it's for sure the audience laughed and cheered a lot while he was on the stage. Bobby Bare may be laid back, but he charms that audience before they even know what hit them.

Here's the song list: Me and Bobby McGee (by Kris Kristofferson), 500 Miles Away From Home (which he wrote with Hedy West and Charlie Williams), Four Strong Winds (by Ian Tyson), Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through The Goalposts Of Life) - reputed to be Bill Clinton's favorite country song (written by Paul Craft), The Streets of Baltimore (by Harlan Howard... Bare was part of the Bakersfield California country music scene for about 10 years, where he became very close with folks like Wynn Stewart, Speedy West, and Harlan and Jan Howard), and a string of Shel Silverstein songs including Marie LeVeau, The Winner, The Mermaid, and Singin' In The Kitchen. The first three Silverstein songs mentioned are definitely grown-up songs with lots of humor, but the last one really grabbed all our hearts because a bunch of Bare's little grandchildren were there (ages 6 and younger) and they got up on the stage with him for Singin' In The Kitchen. It was adorable and Bare's loving relationship with those little kids was obvious both on the stage and backstage before the show.

Bobby's wife Jeannie was there with their kids and grandkids, and so was his longtime close friend Jan Howard. We love you Bobby Bare! Thanks for being there with us on Don's special day and we're so glad you brought your family.

We had another brief intermission to get the stage ready for Ray Price. I took the opportunity to go to the microphone and say a few words about Don and thank the audience for giving us a standing room only show. Then I brought the teary-eyed Miss Hazel up on the stage to express her gratitude to all.

Eddie Stubbs introduced Ray Price with a heartfelt love and appreciation for the great talent about to take the stage.

Ray Price. Just his name evokes thoughts of beautiful, meaningful songs written by some of the greatest songwriters ever, and wonderful memories of country music from Hank Williams' time til today. And that voice. We don't know the secret for how it seems to get richer and smoother and more golden through the years like the finest whiskey, but we just know that it does and we are all the better for it.

Don Helms loved Ray Price and treasured his friendship. They traveled many miles on the road together with Hank and after Hank, and even wrote some songs together. Don and Red Taylor wrote one of Ray's early hits Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes and Don played steel on some of Ray's biggest songs, like Release Me and I'll Be There.

We don't get to see much of Ray Price's sense of humor because he's pretty serious once he gets on the stage, but based on some of his best friends, like Don Helms, Willie Nelson, and Bobby Bare, we know that side of him has to be there. Here's one example from Don's memoirs:

"Ray and I would go fishing and I'd watch him 'cause he was good. Whatever kind of outfit he would use he'd get two of because I didn't have any. So I learned how to catch fish and pretty soon I'd catch them like Ray did. He said, 'When somebody else is paying your way try not to catch more fish than he does, OK?'"

 

Ray Price is also known for having one of the best bands in the industry; more of an orchestra really. On stage with him at Don's tribute were: Fernando (Ferdy) Calderon (drummer and road manager), Josh Hanlon (piano), Tyler Jackson (bass), Glen Fleming (guitar), Cliff Price (acoustic guitar), Jim Loessberg (steel), Pete Wade (electric guitar), Hoot Hester (fiddle), Zach Casebolt, Derek Pell, and Matt Combs (violins), Joe Clem (viola), John Silpayamanant (cello). (There was also a 13-year-old fiddler who sat in with the band for one song and brought the audience to its feet. I will add his name here as soon as I find it!) You guys were beyond amazing and we enjoyed every minute of your music.

Ray's song list included compositions by Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, Bob Wills, Sonny Throckmorton, Bill Anderson, Hank Cochran, Hank Williams, and Kris Kristofferson (the best of the best, as I said): San Antonio Rose, Heartaches By The Number, Release Me, Faded Love, Spanish Eyes, City Lights, A Way To Survive, I Won't Mention It Again, The Other Woman, You're The Best Thing, You Just Don't Love Me Anymore, Time, Fly Me To The Moon, Night Life, Crazy, Make The World Go Away, For The Good Times, Mansion On The Hill, I'm Still Not Over You, I Wish I Was 18 Again.

 

Thank you Ray Price and every member of your band and crew for giving us an afternoon that we will never forget. And thank you from someone else who loves Don and Hazel very much for making their special day the best and most memorable any friends could ask for.

It was almost like a dream. A million thanks to all.

 

For copies of Don's memoirs Settin' the Woods on Fire and also a large selection of CDs with his music and stories, or If you would like to make a contribution to the Don Helms Memorial Fund (for Miss Hazel) please go to:
Don Helms Memorial Fund
200 Neptune Dr.
Hendersonville, TN
37075-3404

Other websites to visit:

http://www.robertswesternworld.com
http://www.jesseleejones.com
http://www.brazilbilly.com
http://www.raypricefanclub.net
http://www.gaildavies.com
http://www.thehankwilliamsmuseum.com
http://www.hankwilliamsinternationalfanclub.com
http://www.freewebs.com/ronelliottmusic/products.htm
http://www.freewebs.com/reunionofentertainers
http://www.davidchurch.net
http://www.billyrobinson.net
http://www.wsmonline.com
http://www.dannyhammers.com
http://www.lynnowsley.com