I Wonder Do You Think Of Me was the first posthumous release for Keith. It was the album he was working on at the time of his death, the planned follow-up to his breakthrough Don’t Close Your Eyes. Inevitably, his death lent an additional poignancy to the songs when audiences first heard them. Even now, it is hard to completely separate the album from the circumstances of its release. Even though Keith did not write any of the songs included, many of them seem to strike a chord with his life. He clearly had a strong input into the selection of material, and he got a co-production credit with Garth Fundis.
Only three singles ended up being released to promote the album, the first being the title track, which reached #1. This excellent song by the legendary Sanger D. Shafer is really a wistful appeal to an old high-school girlfriend who “just drifted away” when they graduated, but the title, and Keith’s delicately mournful delivery, made it eerily appropriate as a tribute to him. The song has a copyright date of 1986, and I understand it was originally considered for inclusion on LA To Miami.
The label seem not to have wanted to capitalize too much on the personal tragedy, because their pick for a follow-up single was the most optimistic song on the album. The mid-tempo ‘It Ain’t Nothin”, a paean to the love of one’s spouse making up for all the troubles in life, was Keith’s last #1 hit. It is pleasant enough, but lacks the emotional impact of the best of Keith’s work; he was at his best when singing a sad country song.
The final single, which surprisingly only reached #3, was the heartbreakingly sad ‘I’m Over You’. The beautifully constructed lyric (by Tim Nichols and Zack Turner) is one of those songs which has the protagonist lying from start to finish about how “over” a relationship he is. It is all too clear to the listener that he is nothing of the kind, as he declares with fragile bravado barely covering the tears:
“You heard that I’m drinkin’ more than I should
That I ain’t been lookin’ all that good
Someone told you I was takin’ it rough
Oh why are they makin’ those stories up
When I’m over you?”
Although the shadow of Keith’s alcoholism does hang over the album like a melancholy cloud, only four of the songs explicitly reference alcohol at all, and they all associate it with unhappiness over love gone wrong. Charlie Craig and Keith Stegall’s ‘Between An Old Memory And Me’ was later a hit single for Travis Tritt, but Keith’s subtler interpretation has an additional emotional weight, as he complains his friends won’t leave him alone with his whiskey and the memory of the woman who left him:
“All my friends tell me I’m a fool for holding on
I know they’re trying to help me but I’ve been a fool too long
I don’t wanna talk about it
Why can’t everybody see
This is just between an old memory and me”
It is tempting to read this as a coded reference to his problems with alcohol, which underlines the sadness of the vocal. Lorrie Morgan stated in a chat with co-writer Charlie Craig which is included on the latter’s CD Old Memories And Me, that this song was one of Keith’s personal favorites among the songs he recorded.
Keith also picked two relatively obscure covers of songs about a man taking refuge in the bottle. ‘Tennessee Courage’ was a track on Vern Gosdin’s 1983 album If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right), and was written by Vern, his brother Rex, and Louis Brown. The song is a classic sad song, and the original is also a beautiful vocal performance, but Keith’s own demons lend his version an emotional rawness as he declares, “It’s my belief I’ll find relief/In a bottle of Tennessee courage”.
The album liner notes quote Keith’s public statement when performing this song live just a few weeks before his death, “I used to get my courage out of a bottle. As a matter of fact it used to be exactly like this”.
The other revival was the fine Paul Craft song ‘Brother Jukebox’, which was an unsuccessful single for Don Everly in 1976. Short and succint, it is the epitome of a perfectly constructed song, as the bereft protagonist spends every day trying to “wash all my troubles away” with his “new next of kin”, because “it beats staying home all night long”:
“Brother jukebox, sister wine,
Mother freedom, Father Time,
Since she left me by myself
You’re the only family I’ve got left”
Another superb sad song comes in the form of ‘Lady’s Choice’, written by husband-and-wife team Bill and Sharon Rice. Keith’s understated emotional intensity really gives the song a desperate, hopeless sadness as he outlines the devastatingly simple position he is in:
“It’s the lady’s choice
She’ll stay or she’ll leave me
She’ll fly like the wind
Or give up her wings
It’s in the lady’s hands
It will or won’t be me
My heart has no voice
It’s the lady’s choice”
In theory the lyric is open-ended regarding the lady in question’s decision, but Keith’s vocal is imbued with a sense of despair, of already having given up the fight.
He does make a stand in the much more hopeful ‘Turn This Thing Around’, my favorite of the up-tempo tracks. In this song, written by Gene Nelson and Gary Harrison, the protagonist is already in a taxi headed for the airport after a fight with his wife:
“Angry words were spoken
Mostly out of spite
Now this second thought I’m having
Is the first thing I’ve done right”
He urges the cabdriver to take him back home as fast as possible so he can make amends.
A less memorable driving song is ‘Heartbreak Highway’, where there is a slightly confusing mixture of road-as-metaphor (“Heartbreak highway, fast lane to the blues”) and reality (“truckstop coffee’s bitter”). It’s not a bad song, but it sinks surrounded by so many genuinely great songs.
I do like the mid-tempo opening track ‘Talk To Me Texas’ (written by the reliable team of Curly Putnam, Don Cook and Bucky Jones), where the hero, lonely and far from home, resorts to spending his last five dollars calling the operator to get any random number back home in Texas so he can hear a familiar accent, and then moves on to thoughts of an old flame, even though “I know by now she’s probably changed her number/And with my luck she’s probably changed her name”.
It is frankly a travesty that this excellent album is no longer commercially available, and has not been released digitally, although used copies of the CD are still available. Overall, I think it is just a point or two below Don’t Close Your Eyes, but it is still an exceptionally good record.