Keith Whitley was an American country musician who was destined to be Nashville’s top country star. His neotraditional music was described by ‘Chicago Tribune’ as “the most soulful of all country music.” Whitley’s music was distinct from the pretentious urban country music that was apparently gaining popularity at the time. His were the tunes of a solo traveler on some long, winding country road of the southern mountains and of solitude. His was the real honky-tonk music, authentic and highly recognized among musicians at the time, especially his peers. The modern generation is familiar with Ronan Keating’s rendition of ‘When You Say Nothing At All.’ However, it is a little known fact that it was a rendition of Whitley’s original from the album ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes,’ which had topped the charts in 1988. However, just when his popularity had started soaring, Whitley died of alcohol poisoning. He was 33 at the time of his death. In her autobiography, Whitley’s wife, Lorrie Morgan, wrote, “Keith Whitley is a legend now: Extremely talented mountain man who drank himself to death.” According to her, Whitley remained unappreciated as an artist when he was still alive. His legacy may have been rewarded posthumously, but the impact of his style of country music is ubiquitous.
Childhood & Early Life
Jackie Keith Whitley was born on July 1, 1955, in Ashland, Kentucky. The Whitley family moved to Sandy Hook, where young Whitley’s father, Elmer, worked as an electrician. His mother, Faye, helped publish the weekly newspaper in Elliott County.
Growing up, the Whitley brothers, Randy, Dwight, and Keith, lived a reckless life. They also had a sister named Mary. Drinking and driving was a common practice. At 13, Whitley drove off a bridge in Elliott County and plunged almost 100 feet down, into a river. He escaped unharmed, except sustaining a broken collar bone. He was rescued by the paramedics.
Whitley inherited his musical talent from his mother’s side of the family. His maternal grandfather played the banjo at square dances, and his mother, too, practiced a little music. She saw the artist in young Whitley when he was only 2. By the time he was 8, Whitley was winning talent contests in Elliot County, singing Marty Robbins’s ‘Big Iron’.
Whitley loved motorbikes. He got his first one at an early age. It was a 1962 ‘Harley,’ built from scratch. However, his love for music was greater. Whitley sold his dear possession to finance his move from Elliot County to Nashville, where he started his solo career.
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Whitley formed his first bluegrass garage band at age 13. He met Ricky Skaggs in 1969, during a musical contest in Ezel, Kentucky. The musical duo soon assembled a new band named ‘Lonesome Mountain Boys,’ which mostly played songs by ‘The Stanley Brothers.’ As fate had it, Ralph Stanley heard them playing at a club in Ft. Gay, in West Virginia, and was dumbfounded by how uncannily similar Whitley and Skaggs sounded.
Ralph Stanley was looking to regroup his band at the time, after losing his brother and music partner, Carter. Whitley and Skaggs were the perfect choice, and ‘Clinch Mountain Boys’ was formed. They recorded seven albums, including 1971’s bluegrass album of the year, ‘Crying from the Cross.’
In 1973, Whitley left the group to explore his talent with other bands. After a hiatus of 2 years, Whitley returned to the ‘Clinch Mountain Boys’ as the lead singer. After five more albums, he joined JD Crowe’s band ‘New South’ in 1978. Their music vacillated from bluegrass to country. They recorded three albums. Soon, Whitley emerged as one of the most versatile singers of the time.
Whitley left ‘New South’ in 1982 and started his solo career in 1983, in Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee, which was the epicenter of country music. He signed a deal with ‘RCA Records.’
In 1984, Whitley released his first solo album, ‘A Hard Act to Follow,’ which was his first mainstream honky-tonk album. It was not received well by critics. Whitley, who was yet to develop an identifiable style, struggled with inconsistencies in his debut album.
He was quick to learn from his mistakes, and the result was his 1986 album, ‘L.A. to Miami.’ The album had his first charting song, ‘Miami, My Amy.’ The success of the album was followed by three more numbers: ‘Ten Feet Away,’ ‘Homecoming ‘63,’ and ‘Hard Livin,’ all of which were top10 hits.
Despite the success of ‘L.A. to Miami,’ Whitley remained distraught as an artist, as he was not happy with the kind of music he was making. He felt his music was too polished and sophisticated and implored ‘RCA’ to cancel a 15-song recorded album. He got deeply involved with the production and came up with his iconic album ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’ (1988). It produced three number-one singles in a row, ‘I’m No Stranger to the Rain,’ ‘When You Say Nothing at All,’ and the title track, ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes.’ The songs aced the ‘Billboard’ country charts. Whitley received his only ‘Country Music Association’ award as a solo performer for ‘I’m No Stranger to the Rain.’
His fourth and final album, ‘I Wonder Do You Think of Me,’ was released 3 months after his untimely demise, on August, 1, 1989. The album produced two number one hits: ‘It Ain’t Nothin’ and ‘I’m Over You.’
His wife, Lorrie Morgan, who had the rights and creative control of Whitley’s works, added two singles to the ‘Greatest Hits’ album. ‘Tell Lorrie I Love Her’ was recorded by Whitley at home as a work tape for his friend Curtis. The song was supposed to be sung at their wedding. The second number, Til a Tear Becomes a Rose,’ was originally recorded as a demo with Skaggs’s harmony. However, Lorrie re-recorded it with her vocals alongside her late husband’s. It won a ‘CMA’ for the best vocal collaboration in 1990 and a ‘Grammy’ nomination in the same category.
Over the next few years, Whitley’s wife continued to release collections of demos and tributes in memory of this great artist. In 1994, ‘Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album’ was released, with cover songs by stalwarts such as Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, and Ricky Skaggs. It also included previously unreleased songs by Whitley. An album based on restored demos of the period between 1986 and 1988 was released under the title ‘Wherever You Are Tonight’ in 1995.
Family & Personal Life
Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan were both married when they met in early 1986. Morgan was separated from her previous husband and was living at her mother’s place, along with her daughter.
After a few chance meetings, Whitley asked Morgan out on a date, clarifying in advance that he had gone through a divorce since their last meeting. It only took a few months for the couple to decide to live together forever, and in November 1986, they got married.
Whitley died of alcohol poisoning on May 9, 1989. His brother-in-law, Palmer, had planned a day of golfing and luncheon with the singer. Upon his arrival, Palmer found Whitley face down on his bed.
The Whitley family had already gone through the tragedy of losing Randy in 1983. Whitley was visibly distraught while talking about his elder brother. Lorrie Morgan mentioned in her book that Whitey had once stated that Randy was the best of the lot.
Whitley’s hit song ‘Miami, My Amy’ was first offered to his wife, Lorrie Morgan, by her friend and songwriter Dean Dillon.
Randy Travis’s ‘On the Other Hand’ and George Straits’s ‘Nobody in His Right Mind Would've Left Her’ were originally meant to be part of Whitley’s second album, ‘L.A. to Miami.’