Last 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:
Don’t Close Your Eyes
I Wonder Do You Think Of Me