Whitley, Keith

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Keith Whitley

Singer, songwriter

Joined J.D. Crowe and the New South

Debut LP Met Indifferent Response

Scored Solo Success in 1988

Tragic Death Ended Nascent Career

Selected discography


When country singer Keith Whitley died in 1989, most critics agreed that the genre had lost one of its most promising young stars. After singing bluegrass with groups for many years, he became a solo artist in 1984. Whitley waited until his second album, L.A. to Miami, for his first chart hit, Miami, My Amy, and then took a few more years to follow up with the album Dont Close Your Eyes. The title track and Im No Stranger to the Rain became even bigger smashes, and Whitley became extremely popular with country fans and critics, evoking comparisons to greats like Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard. Another of Whitleys albums, Wonder Do You Think of Me, was released posthumously in late 1989.

Whitley was born in Kentucky during the mid-1950s. He became involved professionally in country music while still a very young man; he first came to the attention of fans as a singer with Ralph Stanleys Clinch Mountain Boys and was frequently paired for duets with another vocalist who went on to achieve solo country fame, Ricky Skaggs. Hazel Smith recalled seeing Whitley and Skaggs perform at a concert in Camp Spring, North Carolina in Country Music: It was awesome. Ill never forget the look on [Stanleys] face. He knew that hed come across a duo that was out of this world.

Joined J.D. Crowe and the New South

After Skaggs left the Clinch Mountain Boys, Whitley followed suit. By the early 1970s he was lead vocalist for J.D. Crowe and the New South; Smith saw Whitley perform with this bluegrass band as well, and declared that when he sang his version of country classic Window Up Above, cold chills ran from the nape of my neck to the tip of my spine. Whitley also made recordings with the New South, including what Bob Allen of Country Music hailed as a couple of amazing albums that showcased his striking vocal talents: 1981s My Home Aint In the Hall of Fame and the following years Somewhere Between.

Perhaps these two efforts brought Whitley to the attention of RCAs executives in Nashville as solo material. At any rate, he signed a contract with the company, and because industry insiders had already heard some of his excellent work with both Stanley and Crowe, all of Nashville rolled out the red carpet, as Allen put it. Whitley himself recalled for Allen: I rode into town in a blaze of glory, so to speak. The day I cut my first session at RCA, everybody who is anybody in the industry was there. I mean, it was like a major star coming in to record.

For the Record

Born c. 1956 in Kentucky; died of alcohol poisoning May 9, 1989, near Nashville, TN; buried at Spring Hill Cemetary, Nashville. First marriage ended in divorce; married Lorrie Morgan (a country singer), November 1986; children: Morgan (adopted daughter), Jesse Keith.

Country, bluegrass vocalist and songwriter. Sang with Ralph Stanleys Clinch Mountain Boys until the early 1970s; lead singer for J.D. Crowe and the New South from the early 1970s until the early 1980s; solo recording artist and country performer, 1984-89.

Awards: Country Music Association Award for best single of the year for Im No Stranger to the Rain, 1989.

Debut LP Met Indifferent Response

The result of all of this expectation was Whitleys debut album, A Hard Act to Follow. Unfortunately, the songs from it received little airplay. Apparently, as Whitley explained to Allen, even the country radio stations said it was too country for them. Smith felt that the problem was that Whitley had not yet found his own style on Hard Act, and further noted her reactions to it: I was disillusioned. Oh, the music was there all right. If you liked Keith Whitley singing one line like George Jones and the next line like Lefty Frizzell, the music was there. It was awesome, but it wasnt [Whitley].

Whitleys next album, L.A. to Miami, was a little more countripolitan, in Allens phrasing. It did get Keith on country radio, he reported further, but it also alienated many of his longtime supporters. After watching other performers such as Randy Travis and George Strait score big hits with some of the same songs he had recorded on the album, Whitley finally had his own chart-climber off L.A. to Miami with Miami, My Amy.

Whitley went on tour in support of the album, and his live performances were extremely well-received by his audiences. He confessed to Allen: Id have all these people come out and see me in concert, and theyd say, Man, I cant believe how much better you are live! At around the same time, following a divorce from his first wife, he began dating Grand Ole Opry singer Lorrie Morgan; Whitley married her in November of 1986.

Scored Solo Success in 1988

Whitley had already recorded a follow-up album to L.A. to Miami when he realized he was not satisfied with its style; RCA allowed him to begin work on another album. The result was 1988s Dont Close Your Eyes, which Alanna Nash of Stereo Review lauded as a winner from start to finish. The album also caused her to proclaim Whitley as one of the most promising of country musics neo-honky-tonkers.

In addition to the hit title track and the follow-up smash Im No Stranger to the Rainwhich Smith declared Whitley sang with the conviction of a man who was wet from [a] rain storm that was always thereother noteworthy songs from Dont Close Your Eyes include I Never Go Around Mirrors and Flying Colors; the latter song was compared to the humorous work of country singer John Anderson. Nevertheless, most country music critics agreed that the singer had finally found his own style. Allen assessed that Dont Close Your Eyes marked the first time since his early 1980s albums with J.D. Crowe that Whitleys subtle and unmistakable powers as a singer come through on vinyl.

Tragic Death Ended Nascent Career

Whitley had been an alcoholic from the beginning of his career, long before he had reached the legal drinking age. He had unsuccessfully tried treatment and therapy, and had even claimed to have conquered the disease, but this was not so. Whitley was not a social drinker, rather he consumed liquor when he was alone, making it difficult for those around him to detect his drinking. Indeed, though relatives saw Whitley and claim that he was sober as late as two hours before his death, he was found dead in his home near Nashville on May 9, 1989, with a large quantitynearly five times Tennessees legal limit for drivingof alcohol in his bloodstream; traces of Valium and cocaine were also found.

Whitleys influence on the country music genre did not, however, end with his death. When he died, he had just completed work on his fourth solo album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me. Ralph Novak of People asserted that this final album compounds the sadness [of Whitleys death] by demonstrating how he had matured as a singer. Allen concurred, calling I Wonder Do You Think of Me a great albumeasily the best Whitley made in his all too brief career and lifetime. Songs from the disc include the hit It Aint Nothin, Im Over You, Between an Old Memory and Me, and the ironic Tennessee Courage, about turning to alcohol to solve personal problems. Whitley also made an impact on the genre by encouraging the singing career of his wife Lorrie Morgan and bringing her to the attention of RCA. She has gone on to have her own hits since Whitleys death.

Selected discography

With J.D. Crowe and the New South

My Home Aint In the Hall of Fame, 1981.

Somewhere Between, 1982.


A Hard Act to Follow, RCA, 1984.

LA. to Miami (includes Miami, My Amy, On the Other Hand, and Nobody in His Right Mind), RCA, 1986.

Dont Close Your Eyes (includes Dont Close Your Eyes, Im No Stranger to the Rain, Flying Colors, Its All Coming Back to Me Now, Honky-Tonk Heart, and I Never Go Around Mirrors), RCA, 1988.

I Wonder Do You Think of Me (includes Brother Jukebox, Tennessee Courage, It Aint Nothin, Between an Old Memory and Me, and Im Over You), RCA, 1989.

Kentucky Bluebird, RCA, 1991.

Also recorded albums with the Clinch Mountain Boys and duet albums with Ricky Skaggs.


Country Music, July/August 1988; September/October 1988; September/October 1989; November/December 1989; January/February 1990.

People, October 2, 1989; May 7, 1990.

Stereo Review, March 1989.

Elizabeth Wenning