Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
“Six souls on board,” Mike Johnson, Waycross pilot of the single-engine Piper Lance, spoke into the mic of the plane's radio, right before we took off from Nashville's John C. Tune Airport. It gave me an eerie sense of mortality; but, after the weekend we'd had, I would've been a happy dead man.
Dark Side of the Moonpie is how I would describe The Newfanglers' Americana musical concept album—equal parts Pink Floyd and Hank, Sr.
The real story happened years ago, among the palmettos and blueberry patches in the South. In 2003, a handful of Waycross, Georgia songwriters put it all down in words and music. The Newfanglers recorded and released Blood in the Pines: The Story of Hollis Sheppard in 2007.
It was October 2005, when Sean Clark and Paul Lee arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, with the nearly-finished tapes, for a recording session with the king of the steel guitar, Don Helms.
Don Helms was one of Hank Williams's Drifting Cowboys—the one that sent chills up and down your backbone—with those piercing, haunting steel guitar licks that graced more than 100 Hank Williams songs and were heard on 10 of Hank's 11 number one country hits.
Helms's instrument that weekend in Nashville was the same beauty that he played back in the day—a 1948 Gibson Console Grande steel guitar with no foot pedals that he had nicknamed “Ol' Red”.
It was a double-necker—the outside neck was in E6 tuning and the inside neck, B13. The majority of his classic leads were done on the E6 neck. He used the B13 neck for fills.
After Hank died, Helms went on to play on other classic country hits, like Patsy Cline's “Walkin' After Midnight”, the Louvin Brothers' “Cash on the Barrelhead”, and Loretta Lynn's “Blue Kentucky Girl”.
I grew up knowing well the beautiful steel guitar sound of Don Helms. My daddy was a big Hank, Sr. fan; and, his records were the first music I can recall hearing as a child. So, it was with excited reverence that I dared to think that Don Helms might add his classic touch to our Newfanglers' album.
Jimmy Stratton, Nashville photographer and Music City host, called in 2004 to say that Mr. Helms would definitely be interested in playing on Blood in the Pines. A few months later, he called again to say that Mr. Helms had suffered a stroke. Disappointment and weeping in the key of E6.
Don Helms married Hazel Cullifer in 1945. She was a beautiful country lady with a pleasant face and a peaceful strength. It was Hazel who nursed and nurtured her husband back to health after his stroke in 2004. We got the call from Jimmy Stratton in 2005—Don Helms was back in business. Mike and Pam Johnson, along with slide guitarist Reed Bennett of Alma, Georgia, and I, flew into Nashville on Saturday, October 29. We checked in at the motel, hooked up with Jimmy Stratton, Fanglers Paul Lee and Sean Clark, then hit Broadway Street until I was walkin' backwards.
Tootsies' Orchid Lounge, Legends Corner, and Roberts Western World were filled with pure honky tonk music; and, Halloween was in full swing, with our own Sean Clark donning a rubber Elvis mask from a costumed Nashvillian and striking a pose, just as a carload of Japanese tourists rolled up, cameras flashing.
I'll never forget that Sunday, October 30. The recording session took place at a small, wood frame house, in a bohemian, Nashville neighborhood.
Don and Hazel Helms showed up; and, he let me tote his fabled guitar inside and open the case. It was like a single ray of light from Heaven, surrounded by a chorus of honky tonk angels, as I lifted the lid and saw the original Gibson. This was the same guitar that I had listened to, on so many occasions, from the time I was three.
After the recording session, we took pictures, bought copies of his autobiography, Settin' the Woods on Fire, and he graciously autographed all of my daddy's old Hank Williams vinyl albums. It was a full circle moment for me for certain.
Don Helms passed away three years later.
His beautiful playing graced two tracks on The Newfanglers' Blood in the Pines; and, I'm moved to tears every time I hear them.
NEXT WEAK: PART 2
Blood in the Pines: The Story of Hollis Sheppard: The Newfanglers Download or Buy
Mike Johnson's flight book Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin