To Hell with the Grand Ole Opry
A visit to a Montgomery memorial for Hank Williams, Sr., yields an encounter with the guitarist who backed Williams in the 1940s.
“Well, Hank, we hope you’re gonna be around with us for a long, long time,” quipped singer Red Foley as he introduced Hank Williams at the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. “Well, it looks like I’ll be doing just that, Red,” replied the singer with weary confidence. Three years later the Opry grew tired of Williams’ unpredictable no-shows and drunken performances, so they fired him. Within a year his lifeless, 29-year-old, morphine-addicted body was discovered in the backseat of his baby blue Cadillac by Charles Carr, who was driving Williams to a New Year’s Day show in Canton, Ohio.
Fifty years after Williams’ death, Carr stands beside the singer’s big, gaudy tombstone in a Montgomery, Alabama, cemetery on a cold, windy New Year’s Day. The former chauffeur autographs miniature replicas of the Cadillac, lending an eerie touch of the commercial as a hundred fans gather to commemorate the anniversary of Williams’ passing. Carr recalls that fateful trip, his first driving Williams out of state to a show. “I was home for Christmas holidays. My dad and Hank’s dad were friends-that’s how I got the job. I can’t tell you much about Hank’s life, but I’m an expert on his death ’cause I was the only person there.” He dismisses rumors that Williams died of a drug overdose: “Falstaff and a half-pint of liquor were the only things involved.” Next to Williams’ grave stands the equally ostentatious tomb of first wife Audrey. Red roses adorn Hank’s grave, yellow grace Audrey’s. Between the two lies a small marble slab erected by Williams, Jr., after recent vandalism of the family plot. It reads: Please do not desecrate this sacred site.
A couple of miles from the cemetery the gathering reconvenes at the Hank Williams Museum, a morbid shrine that features Williams’ legendary Cadillac and the clothes he was wearing when he died. The automobile is on loan from Hank Williams, Jr., who drove it around Nashville during his high school years (Dolly Parton reportedly offered Williams, Jr., $100,000 a year to exhibit the automobile in Dollywood, but he lets the museum display it at no charge.) Country Music Television’s new documentary about Williams, portraying him as a drunkard and a junkie, is screened at the museum. Those close to Williams are not pleased with the film. Jimmy Porter, Hank’s original pedal-steel guitarist, registers his disgust. “Why do they have to paint the dark side? Is that where the money is? I never saw Hank ever take a drink.”
Two nights later, one-time Opry star Stonewall Jackson (a direct descendent of the Confederate general) plays the Guest House Hotel in Montgomery to conclude three days of Williams tributes. Only 30 or so fans bother to attend. Jackson spends more time talking than singing as he recalls starting at the Grand Ole Opry in 1955 “when I was too broke to pay attention.” The beefy singer has seen his Opry appearances dwindle to very few, and he doesn’t hesitate to voice displeasure. “If I owned the Opry, I’d start firing people,” he mumbles. He reflects on Williams’ influence in his life. “If it hadn’t been for him, I’d still be in south Georgia somewhere, pickin’ cotton. Hank was more of a poet to me than anything else.” Backing up Jackson is Williams’ main pedal-steel guitarist, Don Helms (1943 to 1953). At one point, Jackson turns to Helms and says, “I wish we had some of those pills with a smiley face on it. I think George Morgan [the Opry star who had a hit with 'Candy Kisses' and father of current Opry member Lorrie Morgan] always had some of those.”
Don Helms’ regular gig for the past decade has been playing pedal-steel guitar for Williams’ long-lost daughter Jett, who had to fight Hank Williams, Jr., for her share of the Williams’ fortune after discovering who her father was in the early 1990s. Helms was asked to play the Opry with Jett on the same Friday night he usually works with Stonewall Jackson. He skipped the Opry to be part of Williams’ 50th anniversary tribute in Montgomery. The 75-year-old Helms sits down on a plush couch in the Guest House lobby late that evening after his set with Jackson to reflect on his decade working with the greatest country music performer of all time.
B&W: So are you going to be in trouble for not playing with Jett tonight at the Grand Ole Opry?
Don Helms: I didn’t know she was going to play until the past week. When I worked with Jett last, which was a couple of weeks ago, we said good-byes and we were off till February. So I told Cecil (Jackson, head of the Hank Williams Museum) I’d come down here. I said, “I’ve celebrated the observance of Hank Williams’ funeral for 49 years in some other city. I’ve always been somewhere else. And this is the 50th anniversary, and I want to come to Montgomery.” I said I’d pay my own expenses and I’d come down there and if you’ve got anything you would like for me to do or be a part of, you have it lined up when I get there.
B&W: Jett does a lot of her dad’s music, doesn’t she?
Helms: Yeah, but she won’t sing “Cold Cold Heart” ’cause that was Hank’s favorite. She, being a woman, I have to play every one of Hank’s songs in a different key than he did-(Suddenly Stonewall Jackson walks by on his way to his hotel room.) Stonewall, I enjoyed it, brother. It was good to see you again. (Helms turns to me and grins.) I always used to call him “Gallstone.”
B&W: I wanted to ask you about a song Hank did called “No, No Joe.”
Helms: He didn’t record that in Nashville, and I didn’t record it with him. But what the song was about was Joseph Stalin, the Russian leader. I don’t even remember what the problem was, but it was some kind of political thing he was trying to do. He was trying to shaft the United States and this song was written about that. I’ve never played it far as I know, ’cause it’s not something he featured on stage. And, too, when the political problem was over, it was out of touch anyway. All those situations. Once the problem’s solved, you ain’t got no need to play it (laughs).”
B&W: Was Hank political at all?
Helms: No, I mean, like we all gripe about elections, and if your man don’t win, you bitch . . . I mean gripe (laughing). . . . An entertainer is a fool to declare in public his preference in religion or his politics. Because the first thing you do, whether you mean to or not, is divide your audience right down the middle, at best.
B&W: Was the Opry a fun place to play in the old days?
Helms: Well, there was always some kind of bull goin’ on, some guy tellin’ jokes, playin’ tricks. It was just a fun place to be. . . . It was a happy place to be. It’s not quite like that anymore. It’s a little more subdued. The camaraderie’s shot to hell. I don’t think anybody has any fun at the Grand Ole Opry anymore. Maybe the audience does. And I don’t work there anymore, so I can say what I please.
B&W: When I watch old Opry clips, I’m always drawn to the interaction between Hank and June Carter. Anything special about their duets that you recall?
Helms: June Carter was that way with everybody. She was just a vibrant, silly little girl that everybody loved. She wasn’t necessarily that way in person, but on the stage she would come across as the lovable little girl with pigtails that could kick her shoes off and make you laugh. There was a certain magnetism . . . Hank was much more attracted to Anita Carter than he was June. So was I. . . . We worked a lot of tours with the Carter Family when they first came to the Opry.
B&W: What did Hank think about people like Tony Bennett making pop versions of his songs?
Helms: He thought that was the greatest thing in the world, for anybody to do his songs. He aspired to be a writer, not a singer. Even up to his death, he would rather listen to somebody else’s record of his song than he would his own record. He aspired to be a writer . . . and I think he made it. &