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Leona Williams

Shortly after Leona Williams signed with Hickory Records in 1968, label head Wesley Rose explained his philosophy of nurturing new artists to her. As Leona recalls, "Wesley said, 'It doesn't make a difference if it's a big hit record. We're building a foundation. You can work the rest of your life once you do that. Otherwise you're just gonna have a hit record that will jump out there and that'll be it.'"

It's a philosophy very far removed from today's standard in Nashville – artists are best advised to grab what they can, while they can, before the short expiration date runs out on their career. Leona Williams never achieved a number one hit single, and only one of her albums ever placed on the 'Billboard' Country charts, but 45 years later Wesley Rose's advice stills hold true. Leona Williams still plays live for adoring country music fans almost every weekend, her new records still sell in respectable numbers and most of all, she's still regarded as one of the all-time great pure country vocalists by her fans and peers.

It's been a long and rocky road for the Missouri farm girl who began singing along with the country music idols she heard on the radio. But it's been a road that led to some classic country music.

Music had long been a central part of the Helton household when Leona Belle Helton entered the world. Leona's parents, Vernon A. Helton and Dorothy Green Helton first met through their mutual love of music.

"My dad had six kids with his first wife," Leona said, "and she was pregnant again. She wound up having twins. The first week the little boy twin died, the second week the momma died, and the third week the little girl twin died. Daddy said he had a funeral every week for three weeks and didn't hardly know what to do with himself."

Vernon Helton cared for his children the best he could with help from neighbors and relatives. Then he met Dorothy Green at a local dance. "Daddy was playing the fiddle at the dance where he met momma," Leona said. "Momma played piano, organ and the four-string banjo. They got to liking each other and got married not long after. He was 34 and she was 17. She raised his six kids and started having us six. I don't like to say half-brothers or sisters because we were all real close."

The Heltons were living on a small farm in the community of Argyle, in Maries County, Missouri when Leona was born on January 7, 1943 – the ninth of what eventually would be twelve Helton children. Three months after her birth, Vernon Helton moved his family to a house in the county seat of Vienna. Vernon A. Helton secured a job as an equipment operator for county road maintenance, but continued to play the fiddle in whatever spare time he could find.

With seven brothers and four sisters there was little time for being alone, as Leona jokingly recalls, "We lived in a little bitty house, and I didn't know what it was like to sleep alone until I got married."

By the age of five, Leona was learning to play the mandolin, and by the age of nine, she graduated to the guitar. Although neither of her parents pursued music professionally, her father and other siblings would often perform at local fiddling contests, fairs, church suppers and school functions 

The Helton family couldn't afford a phonograph or records, but they did have a radio, even before they had electricity. "We had a battery radio," Leona said. "Daddy would let us listen to the 'Grand Ole Opry.' I knew exactly what time of day it was on. I even wrote Roy Acuff a letter once."

Even though the King of Country Music never replied, Leona was not discouraged in her love for country music. A love that only grew greater when she first heard Kitty Wells.

from booklet BCD17246 - Leona Williams Yes, Ma'm, He Found Me In A Honky Tonk (3-CD)
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