My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Spotlight Artist: Keith Whitley (July 1, 1955 – May 9, 1989)

keithwhitleyLast month we spotlighted the Class of ’89, noting the many creative and commercial triumphs that occurred during that landmark year for country music. The same year brought one of country music’s great tragedies — the untimely death of Keith Whitley from alcohol poisoning. May 9th marks the 20th anniversary of that sad day. This month My Kind of Country will spotlight Keith Whitley and look back at the great musical legacy he left behind.

Jesse Keith Whitley was born in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, on July 1, 1955. Many sources cite 1954 as the year of his birth, but 1955 is what is engraved on his headstone. When young Keith was a teenager, he entered a talent contest with his brother Dwight. Also entered in the contest was another teenage prodigy by the name of Ricky Skaggs. The two became lifelong friends. Together, they became the opening act for the bluegrass band The Clinch Mountain Boys. Whitley went on to play and sing for the bluegrass band J.D. Crowe and the New South. The group released an album in 1982 called Somewhere Between, featuring Whitley on lead vocals. The album eventually led to a solo deal for Whitley with RCA Records.

Whitley’s RCA debut was the mini-LP A Hard Act To Follow, which was released in 1984. The mini-LP didn’t make much of an impact on the charts. The lead single “Turn Me To Love” peaked at #59 on the Billboard country singles chart. It’s worth noting that the harmony vocals on this recording were provided by an unknown and unsigned singer by the name of Patty Loveless. Despite his very traditional voice, heavily influenced by Carter Stanley and Lefty Frizzell, RCA was pushing Whitley in a more country-pop direction, which was evident on his next project.

A Hard Act to Follow was followed up in 1985 by the album L.A. to Miami. Featuring a more contemporary sound, the album provided Keith with his first top 20 single, “Miami, My Amy”, followed by three top 10 hits: “Ten Feet Away”, “Homecoming ’63”, and “Hard Livin’.” The pop influences were still dominant, although the album also contained two more traditional songs: “On the Other Hand” and “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her”, which went on to become huge hits for Randy Travis and George Strait, respectively.

During this time, Whitley met and married Grand Ole Opry star Lorrie Morgan. Their son, Jesse Keith Whitley, Jr. was born in June 1987. Whitley was also working on a new album for RCA. The project was near completion, but he was unsatisfied with the way it was turning out. He approached label head Joe Galante, and asked for and received permission to shelve the project and start over again. He was also granted the right to have a bigger say in the production of his records.

Whitley teamed up with a new producer, Garth Fundis, and began working on a new album. The result was Don’t Close Your Eyes, his most traditional album yet for RCA. The title track not only went to #1, it was Billboard’s #1 country record of the year in 1988. The album also produced two more #1 hits for Whitley, and was certified gold.

Whitley had long been notorious for his party lifestyle and heavy drinking, but that seemed to have calmed down since his marriage and the birth of his son. This was in no small part to the diligent efforts of his wife Lorrie Morgan to keep him away from alcohol. She even went so far as to tether him to her with a bathrobe tie, so he wouldn’t be able to get up and drink in the middle of the night without her knowledge.

By early 1989, things were looking up for the Whitleys both personally, and professionally. Keith and Garth Fundis had teamed up for another album, which was nearly completed. Lorrie had secured a deal with RCA and scored her first top 20 hit “Trainwreck of Emotion” in late 1988. An album was scheduled for release in the spring of 1989. And then, tragedy struck.

On the morning of May 9, 1989, while Lorrie was on tour promoting her forthcoming album, Keith missed a golfing date with his brother-in-law. He was found dead on his bed, face down and fully clothed, with a blood alcohol level that was nearly five times the legal limit in Tennessee. He was 33 years old.

After Keith’s death, RCA released the album he’d been working on with Garth Fundis. The title track, the poignantly titled “I Wonder Do You Think of Me,” reached #1 on Billboard’s country singles chart during the week of September 9, 1989. A Greatest Hits collection followed in 1990, which contained a previously unreleased track called “‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose”. Lorrie’s vocals were added to the track. It won the CMA’s Vocal Collaboration of the Year award in 1990.

Most of Keith’s solo work is still commercially available. L.A. to Miami and Don’t Close Your Eyes remain in print. I Wonder Do You Think of Me is out of print, but used and collectors copies can still be found online. In addition, several compilations and tribute albums have been released in the years since Keith’s death. The Essential Keith Whitley contains several hard to find tracks, including the six that comprised his RCA debut mini-album, A Hard Act to Follow. In 1995, Lorrie Morgan and Joe Galante produced Wherever You Are Tonight, which focused on Keith Whitley the songwriter. His vocals were taken from demo recordings of songs he had written and combined with newly recorded tracks. Released on the BNA label, this collection is currently out of print, but used copies are relatively easy to find. In 2000, Rounder Records released Sad Songs and Waltzes, which contained Keith’s vocals from the J.D. Crowe and the New South’s 1982 LP, with new tracks and harmony vocals. Sad Songs and Waltzes also contains some previously unreleased Whitley demos, cleaned up and laid to new tracks.

It’s impossible to say to what heights Keith’s career would have soared had he lived. It seems likely that he had not yet peaked commercially. However, we now know that country music was destined to change dramatically during the 1990s. The neotraditionalist movement was almost over. Would Keith have defied the odds and remained a staple at country radio like George Strait and Alan Jackson? Or would he have been ceremoniously swept off the charts like Randy Travis? We’ll never know what might have been.

Click here to see news footage from Keith’s funeral.

Listen to Keith Whitley at Last FM:

Homecoming ’63
Don’t Close Your Eyes
I Wonder Do You Think Of Me

13 responses to “Spotlight Artist: Keith Whitley (July 1, 1955 – May 9, 1989)

  1. Pingback: Kenny Chesney Debuts Video On MySpace | The 9513

  2. Mike K May 1, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Very well done, Razor. I have often wondered to myself the very same questions that yo uask at the end of the article. I think Whitley’s desire to record traditional-sounding music would have led to his dismissal from the country charts. There is no denying that his voice would have continued to sell records and concert tickets, but I’m not sure that chart success would have continued.

    I think that this scenario is an underreported reason that I feel off-the-radar artists are sometimes more appealing to me .While I’m sure that some kids grow up wanting to sing popular music, the ones that really invest themselves deeply are aware of the traditions and stylistic history of the genre. Whether they then try to emulate that style or take that style in a new direction, they are all beginning with a common idea of what the music has been.

    We could sure use more singers like Keith Whitley. I’m very sad that I never got to see him in concert.

  3. DimSkip May 1, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Nice Keith writeup. Thanks for posting it.

    I have most of those albums in some form or another, but unless I somehow missed it I see no mention of another notable (I think) posthumous re-working of demo Keith tunes (plus some old interviews and appearance excerpt clips), “Kentucky Bluebird” (1991), which I also like a lot. (Here it is on Amazon.)

    I had “A Hard Act To Follow” on cassette, but never found it on CD except as you mention as part of “The Essential” collection. I also had “Greatest Hits” on cassette, but never got it on CD, so I’m still missing “Till A Tear Becomes A Rose,” though I’m very familiar with it.

    I do have “Wherever You Are Tonight” and “Sad Songs & Waltzes.” I also have “Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album” (1994) which has a few Keith rarities and Dwight Whitley’s “Brotherly Love” (1995) tribute album.

    (I’ve followed your blog via RSS feed in iGoogle for a few months now. I’ve never commented before, but I’ve been noting the “1989” series of posts with particular interest. I hope these links and the HTML formatting I’m trying to set up here work OK. In case they don’t, I preemptively apologize in advance. Here goes nothin’…)

  4. DimSkip May 1, 2009 at 11:40 am

    …And I think Keith would have maintained a core fan base, but probably would have all but disappeared from significant radio airplay. Much like another all-time fave of mine, Mark Chesnutt.

    (P.S. Wow, all those links and the formatting seem to have worked… Cool. I just figured I would have messed’em up somewhere along the line.)

  5. Buckeye May 6, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    There is ONLY one Jesse Keith Whitley– born in June 1987. There was ONLY one JACKIE Keith Whitley– he passed away on May 9, 1989. It would be nice and more RESPECTFUL toward Keith if people who write about him on the Internet would GET THEIR FACTS STRAIGHT. His GIVEN FIRST name was Jackie.

    • Razor X May 6, 2009 at 11:20 pm

      I apologize if I made an error, but while we’re on the topic of being respectful, it would have been nice if you had pointed it out more politely. I’ve seen his name listed as both Jesse and Jackie; most sources have listed it as Jesse. I assumed that Jesse was correct because that is also his son’s name.

  6. Leeann Ward May 7, 2009 at 7:33 am

    I just looked it up in my copy of the Encyclopedia of Country Music, which was compiled by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and it says his name was Jesse Keith Whitley.

    • J.R. Journey May 7, 2009 at 9:23 am

      I’ve never heard him referred to as ‘Jackie Keith’, always ‘Jesse Keith’. It’s also his son’s name, but my name is also the same as my Dad’s – with Junior on the end rather than Senior.

    • FanOfCountry March 29, 2016 at 10:49 am

      That’s a mistake, Keith Whitley was born Jackie Keith according to search results online. That makes sense since Keith and Lorrie’s son Jesse Keith Whitley was not a “Jr.”

  7. Pingback: Tributes to Keith Whitley « My Kind Of Country

  8. Pingback: Kenny Chesney Debuts Video On MySpace - Engine 145

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