1985’s L.A. to Miami provided Keith Whitley with some badly needed radio hits, but the slick pop-oriented production didn’t sit well with him. Wanting to return to his traditional country roots, he asked RCA executive Joe Galante to shelve the follow-up album that was nearly ready to release and to allow him to start working on a new album that was more in line with his musical tastes. Galante agreed, and Keith chose Garth Fundis to be his co-producer. The result was 1988’s Don’t Close Your Eyes, which was Whitley’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album up to that time.
Two tracks from the scrapped album were salvaged and released as singles to maintain Whitley’s presence on the radio while he and Fundis were working on the new album. “Would These Arms Be In Your Way”, which featured harmony vocals by Vern Gosdin (one of the song’s co-writers) and Emmylou Harris peaked at #36 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1987. It was followed by “Some Old Side Road” which reached #16. Both of these tracks were eventually included on the new album, though “Would These Arms Be In Your Way” appeared only on the CD version.
The album opens with the mid-tempo “Flying Colors”, which is a decent song, but not quite up to the standards of the rest of the album. The second track “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” is one of my favorites. Co-written by Keith with Curly Putman and Don Cook, it’s one of the few instances in which Keith recorded a song he’d written himself. In this interview with TNN’s Shelly Mangrum, he mentioned that it was being considered for release as a single, but that never happened.
The third track, another CD-only bonus, is a clever novelty song called “Lucky Dog”, an infectious tune that you find yourself singing along to in spite of yourself:
I can’t stand a collar,
Makes it hard to swaller,
But where you go I’ll foller,
Hey, I’m a lucky dog
And that brings us to the title track, the beautiful Bob McDill ballad “Don’t Close Your Eyes”, which is the highlight of the album. Like no other song Whitley had recorded up to that point, it demonstrated his skill at interpreting lyrics. His vocals are stellar. I was only vaguely aware of who Keith Whitley was when I first heard this song on the radio. After hearing it for the first time, I immediately went out and bought the album. “Don’t Close Your Eyes” became Keith’s first #1 hit. It was also Billboard’s #1 country hit for 1988. The next two singles, the Don Schlitz/Paul Overstreet composition “When You Say Nothing At All” and “I’m No Stranger To The Rain”, penned by Sonny Curtis and Ron Hellard, also reached #1. The latter was a song that Keith could relate to personally, having fought his share of demons. It earned him his first Country Music Association Award, awarded posthumously, when it won Single of the Year in 1989.
The album also included a cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors”, which Keith had previously recorded when he was with the group J.D. Crowe and the New South. He told Joe Galante that he wanted to record this song and release it as a single. Galante expressed some reservations; the song had only one verse and he was afraid that it was too short. Whitley remedied this by asking Whitey Shafer, who had co-written the song with Frizzell, to write a new second verse. The expanded version of the song never did get released as a single, but this is the version that was covered by Trace Adkins a decade later as part of the multi-artist Tribute to Tradition album.
Every track on this album is a winner. It was clearly a labor of love that paid off both critically and commercially. It was awarded gold status by the RIAA for sales in excess of 500,000 units. More importantly, it established Keith Whitley as a force to be reckoned with, and proved that he was at his best when he sang traditional country music.
His career had reached new heights and it seemed that Keith Whitley was at the top of the world. Sadly, this triumph was short-lived. Whitley and Fundis teamed up for a follow-up album, which was completed in early 1989, but unfortunately, fate intervened, and Keith Whitley did not live to see its release. That album, I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, was the one Keith considered to be his best, according to Fundis. However, Don’t Close Your Eyes is my personal favorite. It is still available commercially and deserves a place in every country music lover’s collection.
Purchase Don’t Close Your Eyes at Amazon or iTunes