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 Don’t Close Your Eyes. The title track and “I’m 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 Whitley’s 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 Stanley’s 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. I’ll never forget the look on [Stanley’s] face.… He knew that he’d come across a duo that was out of this world.”
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”: 1981’s My Home Ain’t In the Hall of Fame and the following year’s Somewhere Between.
Perhaps these two efforts brought Whitley to the attention of RCA’s 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 Stanley’s 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 “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” 1989.
The result of all of this expectation was Whitley’s 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 wasn’t [Whitley].”
Whitley’s next album, L.A. to Miami, was a little more “countripolitan,” in Allen’s 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: “I’d have all these people come out and see me in concert, and they’d say, ‘Man, I can’t 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.
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 1988’s Don’t 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 music’s neo-honky-tonkers.”
In addition to the hit title track and the follow-up smash “I’m No Stranger to the Rain”—which Smith declared Whitley sang “with the conviction of a man who was wet from [a] rain storm that was always there”—other noteworthy songs from Don’t 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 Don’t Close Your Eyes marked “the first time since his early 1980’s albums with J.D. Crowe” that Whitley’s “subtle and unmistakable powers as a singer come through on vinyl.”
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 quantity—nearly five times Tennessee’s legal limit for driving—of alcohol in his bloodstream; traces of Valium and cocaine were also found.
Whitley’s 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 Whitley’s death] by demonstrating how he had matured as a singer.” Allen concurred, calling I Wonder Do You Think of Me “a great album—easily the best Whitley made in his all too brief career and lifetime.” Songs from the disc include the hit “It Ain’t Nothin’,” “I’m 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 Whitley’s death.
With J.D. Crowe and the New South
My Home Ain’t 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.
Don’t Close Your Eyes (includes “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” “Flying Colors,” “It’s 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 Ain’t Nothin’,” “Between an Old Memory and Me,” and “I’m 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.
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