Warren Helton, an Elder of the Missouri Fiddle Community, Dies at 83

by Howard Marshall, also appearing in Fiddler Magazine

Warren Helton standing in front of his house.

Helton, October 2010. (Photo by Howard Marshall)

Warren Helton, a strong advocate who kept an unusually-rich storehouse of family fiddle traditions alive, and who embraced western swing as a young man, died in Vienna, Missouri, August 28, 2020. He had been in fragile health following a stroke in recent years, and suffered from advancing Alzheimer’s disease.

Warren Helton was born in Maries County on the family farm in 1937 and grew up in a large family of fiddlers, banjo pickers, jig dancers, and singers. Most of his three brothers and two sisters became well-known musicians. The first Heltons in Missouri came west from Kentucky or Tennessee to Maries County in 1818, two years before Missouri became a State. There were fiddlers and musicians throughout the generations.

Warnie Helton (as his friends and family called him) absorbed the fiddle tunes and styles of his father, uncles, and cousins and became influential in genres often separated in today’s fiddle landscape — “old-time” fiddling, bluegrass, and western swing. Warren Helton started out playing guitar — as many fiddlers did in former times. By age nine, he was seconding his father Vernon’s fiddling at dances and in sessions, playing guitar accompaniment and tenor banjo as well, which Warren played by strumming chords with a flat pick. Helton enjoyed old-time “frailing” banjo five-string style (now called “clawhammer”) as well as chorded tenor banjo styles played by members of his family.

Warren Helton started playing fiddle music at nine years of age. One day, he was trying to play the Kay guitar that his older half-brother, Arlen, had left when he went into the army during World War II. Warnie’s mother, Dorothy, was afraid Warnie would scratch Arlen’s guitar, and took it away from the over-eager child. Helton recalls that Bert Sims, a family friend who operated a bus line based in Washington, MO, had found a violin forgotten on a bus by its owner. Several years passed with no claim being made on the instrument, and Sims left it at the Heltons’ for young Warnie to have — if the boy would learn to play it. The same day his mother took Arlen’s guitar away,

I said, “Mom, I have got a mind to play.” And I went in there and got that and played ‘Soldier’s Joy.’ And I never will forget that. And Mom cried, she said, “I can’t believe that.” And Dad come home, she told him, [and] he cried. And he said, “Warnie, I hear you played a little bit — get that fiddle, play one.” I said, “I’ll play this little thing right here, it ain’t very much, ya might tell what it is. And I played ‘Soldier’s Joy.’ I never forget it. I had my first fiddle tune. I went from there. I was nine year old. (Warren Helton, from a Howard Marshall interview, October 18, 2020)

Isabelle Waltz

Players: Warren Helton, fiddle; Howard Marshall, banjo; David Cavins, guitar

Warren’s father, Vernon Helton, often played this at dances in Brinktown; the tune is related to an untitled central Missouri melody called “Kemp’s Waltz,” or “Norma Lou’s Waltz.” Recorded by David Cavins. Included on the “Play Me Something Quick and Devilish” CD.

American Legion Hall, Brinktown, MO

Among other venues, Helton family fiddlers played for dances in the American Legion Hall in the predominantly German-American farming village of Brinktown, where the dancers wanted fiddlers to play waltzes faster than in the Anglo-American communities. Helton used to say, “Those Germans hated draggy waltzes.” (Photo by Howard Marshall, 2010)

Helton’s repertoire defied easy classification, because he enjoyed a variety of styles and traditions and was delightfully open to new ideas. While grounded in the traditional music of his family region in Maries, Miller, and northern Pulaski Counties, south of Jefferson City, Warren liked, and played, bluegrass, and western swing music. He played fiddle in several Missouri bluegrass bands. He became active in western swing when he travelled to play fiddle in Merle Haggard’s band, The Strangers, during the years when Warren’s sister, Leona Williams, was singing in the band (and married for a time to Merle Haggard).

Warnie learned many tunes and family favorites from his uncle, George Helton. In addition to his family members, he pointed to his friend, Jim Gilmore, as an important mentor. In long sessions at Gilmore’s house in Jefferson City, Helton became more aware of swing fiddling, one of Gilmore’s focuses in style and repertoire. They became good friends and played dances together. Warren Helton said on several occasions that he never felt that he played waltzes very well, because Jimmy Gilmore played waltzes so brilliantly.

Jimmy Gilmore and Warrren Helton fiddling

Jim Gilmore of Jefferson City (L.), normally considered an old-time fiddler, also played swing and jazz; with Warren Helton, working out some tunes at Gilmore’s home, 1963. (Courtesy Helton)

Several members of the previous generation of Helton fiddlers, as well as Warren himself, were documented by R.P. Christeson when Christeson was developing his Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory tune books (University of Missouri Press, 1973, 1984). George Helton (Warren’s uncle) and brothers Allen and Waldo (cousins) are represented in the Christeson books. Other Helton fiddlers of the older generations, such as Ike, Arch, and Oliver, and Warren’s father, Vernon Helton, played tunes that were later popularized by Missouri fiddlers such as Dean Johnston (Lamar), Jim Gilmore (Jefferson City), Lonnie Robertson (Springfield), John Journagin (Kansas City), and Lyman Enloe of Lee’s Summit (whose “Waldo” was named after Waldo Helton).[1] Other family fiddlers included Mose, Ben, Otto, and others in previous generations. Warren’s father Vernon and uncle George recalled their cousin, Ike Helton, tell about swapping tunes in jam sessions and competing in fiddle contests with Bill Driver, the African-American fiddler, recorded by Christeson (and featured in Christeson’s books). Warren played a “Bill Driver tune” handed down from Ike Helton and George Helton that they recalled Driver calling “Callifax.”[2]

Warren’s younger sister, Leona Williams Kirby, is a country singer and songwriter. [3] During the years that Leona was a backup singer with Merle Haggard’s Strangers band (and married to Haggard), opportunities presented themselves for Warren Helton to fiddle on country music shows with Haggard in California and other places.

Sheet music of a tune played by Warren Helton

“Texas Picnic” as played by Warren Helton, 2010. The tune has elements of “Smith’s Reel” in the first part, and interesting bowing in the second, less-familiar section. Helton learned the tune from his grandfather Gib Helton in the 1940s; “Dad played it, George played it, they all played it.” Despite the title, I am not aware of versions of this tune beyond the Helton family in and around Maries County, Missouri. (Recorded by Howard Marshall, transcription by Philip K. Vinyard)

Through Warren Helton’s performances with Merle Haggard and the respect his fiddling engendered, in 1982 he found himself featured in a book that Merle Haggard and Tiny Moore published, Swinging Texas Fiddlin’: A Study of Traditional and Modern Breakdown and Hoedown Fiddling. This book includes Texas champion Vernon Solomon, and Tiny Moore, a pioneer in electric swing mandolin and a member of Bob Wills’s band. In that “sheet book” (as Warren called it), nine of Warnie’s tunes are featured and most are ironclads of the broad repertoire of Missouri fiddlers, from old-time square dance players to swing and bluegrass fiddlers.[4]

Helton preferred to keep his fiddling traditional, remarking, in the example “Grey Eagle,” that the “old-timers didn’t put in extra parts.” He played it in the manner of his father’s elder cousin, Ike (Ikie) Helton (Waldo’s brother), rather than the contemporary, contest-derived and Texas-derived version. “I said (to myself), in my olden days, I’m going to play it like I heard it.”

Befitting his versatility, Warren’s chapter in the book is nicely characterized as “Between Texas and Tennessee.” Tiny Moore writes in the chapter titled “Warren Helton Style:” “In comparing the styles of Vernon Solomon and Warren Helton, I think it might be said that Warren’s style is the link between Texas and Tennessee.”

Tiny Moore, Merle Haggard, Warren Helton in Benton, Arkansas, 1972.

Tiny Moore, Merle Haggard, Warren Helton in Benton, Arkansas, 1972. (Courtesy Helton)

Warren Helton is also featured in a 2012 book and music CD, Play Me Something Quick and Devilish and the following 2017 book and music CD , Fiddler’s Dream (University of Missouri Press; author, Howard Marshall). The music CD with the 2012 book Fiddler’s Dream includes Warren’s “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (a Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys western swing hit record), taken from an afternoon of fiddle and banjo music, and stories recorded by David Cavins in the Helton kitchen in March 2011.

Bill Driver Tune

Players: Warren Helton, fiddle; David Cavins, guitar

Recorded March 27, 2011 at Warren Helton’s home in Vienna, Missouri by David Cavins.

A scene from a music jam session.

Warren and Wayne Helton play twin fiddle tunes at a music party in Wayne’s machine shop at his farm, Maries County, 2010. L-R: Bobby Joe Caldwell (Columbia, guitar), Warren Helton, John Copeland (a Helton cousin and fiddler, listening), Wayne Helton, Elzie Helton (guitar). Wayne (born 1940) is also a well-known Maries County fiddler, and the brothers often played twin fiddle together, including occasions playing in Merle Haggard’s band in California. The Helton family fiddlers also played old-fashioned “second fiddle” accompaniment for other fiddlers. (Photo by Howard Marshall)

In 2014, at his family’s urging, Warren recorded a CD of his fiddle. Warren Helton: Old-Tyme Fiddler features Warnie’s fiddling accompanied by Leona Williams (guitar), Pat Coyne (bass), and Beverly Dillard (claw-hammer banjo). Warnie’s tune list covered the breadth of his experience and fiddling pleasures, with family favorites “Billy in the Low Ground,” “Ragtime Annie,” “Grandpa Helton’s Tune,” “Marmaduke’s Hornpipe,” and “Bill Cheatem,” to breakdowns from Nashville fiddlers Arthur Smith (“Sugar Tree Stomp”), Tommy Jackson (“Acorn Hill Breakdown”), and Howdy Forrester (“Memory Waltz”), a tune from bluegrass star Kenny Baker (“Brandywine”), a Bob Wills swing tune (“Faded Love”), and Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell.” The CD speaks well of his music and for two centuries of Helton family fiddling in central Missouri.

Warren Helton and his wife Mary Joyce (Spratley) Helton were married in 1958. They built a house (with plenty of room for music parties and six children) and developed a farm west of Vienna, a few miles from the old Helton homestead. Mary Joyce survives him. For most of his working years, Warnie worked in the timber and logging business and raised cattle. In recent years, he enjoyed serving as a bank courier, handling business for branches of the Maries Count Bank. A gregarious gentleman with an easy smile, Warren Helton made friends wherever he went.


1. Enloe’s “Waldo” is on his 1973 LP, Fiddle Tunes I Recall (reissue, County Records, 1978) as well as the University of Missouri documentary, Now That’s a Good Tune: Masters of Missouri Fiddling (1989; CD reissue, revised, Voyager Recordings and Books, 2008).

2. The tune is in R.P. Christeson’s books three times. In the first volume of The Old-Time Fiddler’s Repertory (1973), the tune is given as an unnamed “Breakdown” (#105) from Bill Driver. In the second volume (1984), it appears as an unnamed “Breakdown” from Waldo Helton (#67), and again as “Cannifax” (#75) as played by Bill Driver and recalled by the author from Waldo Helton’s fiddling at 1920s picnics.

3. As a teenager in 1957, Leona had a live radio show on KWOS in Jefferson City called Leona Sings. She moved to Nashville and recorded for Hickory, RCA, Polygram, and MCA, scoring hits with “Once More,” “Yes Ma’am, He Found Me in A Honky Tonk,” “Country Girl With Hot Pants On,” and others. Leona later recorded a hit record with Merle Haggard, “The Bull and the Beaver,” on their 1983 Mercury LP, Heart to Heart. They were married for several years. She then married songwriter Dave Kirby and moved back to Missouri, and continued to perform and release records with various Branson shows and oprys.

4. Swinging Texas Fiddlin’: A Study of Traditional and Modern Breakdown and Hoedown Fiddling (New York, Peer International, 1982), 47-40; Helton’s tunes are “Bill Cheatem,” “Sally Goodin,” “Grey Eagle,” “Rag Time Annie” (with the “G part”), “Leather Britches,” “Texas Picnic,” “Katy Hill,” “Billy in the Low Ground,” and “Wednesday Night Waltz.”