RCA had a lot of unreleased Keith Whitley recordings in the vaults, and in 1991 the label got his last producer, Garth Fundis, to work on a number of these, leading to the release of Kentucky Bluebird. The album is a bit of a hodgepodge, comprising a mixture of these re-produced tracks, snippets from radio interviews of primarily historical interest, and a few tracks from Keith’s earlier RCA albums. A total of 15 tracks are listed, but only eight were new songs. The material is not of such a consistently high material as his two masterworks, Don’t Close Your Eyes or I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, but Garth Fundis did a pretty good job making it sound like a reasonably cohesive project.
Five tracks were taken from the sessions for the jettisoned album Keith recorded with Blake Mevis as a follow-up to LA To Miami, with new backings recorded under Fundis’ oversight. The label obviously regarded these as the most commercial tracks, and two were picked as singles to promote the album. The more successful of these was ‘Brotherly Love’, a duet with Earl Thomas Conley, which reached #2 on Billboard. Conley was rather a curious choice of duet partner, as although he had been a massive star in the 80s, he was at the tail-end of his hitmaking career, he was quite a bit older than Keith, and his soulful style had little in common with Keith’s traditional country and bluegrass influences. However, their voices blend together surprisingly well on a touching if slightly sentimental tale of brotherhood.
Keith’s last ever hit single (making #15) was the pleasantly inoffensive but rather forgettable pop-country ballad ‘Somebody’s Doin’ Me Right’, written by Fred Knobloch, Paul Overstreet and Dan Tyler. It feels rather like an out-take from LA To Miami, as does the undistinguished stuttering rocker ‘Going Home’, which was written by Troy Seals and actor John Schneider (who had himself been pursuing a career in country music with some success in the 80s). You can see why Keith was not altogether happy with the album they were planned for.
The best of the Mevis-originating tracks is the rather lovely ‘That’s Where I Want To Take Our Love’, written by Dean Dillon (who later recorded it himself) and the legendary Hank Cochran. Keith gives a beautifully tender interpretation of this reflective dream of settling down and making a home in the country: “They’ll know just what country means ‘fore they go off to town”, he sings of his imagined future children.
RCA had never given Keith much opportunity to record his own songs, but he did write songs, and three tracks here are based on demos he recorded for his publishing company, Tree, although only two of them are songs he co-wrote himself. ‘Backbone Job’ was written by Keith with Kix Brooks, and has a jaunty tune belying a serious lyric about searching for honest manual work in a hi-tech world.
He wrote the amusing uptempo ‘I Want My Rib Back’ with Fred Koller. The song was cut by Gene Watson on his 1985 album Memories To Burn under the title ‘I think I Want My Rib Back’, presumably after hearing Keith’s original demo. The tongue-in-cheek lament is great fun:
“There’s been a hole in my wallet and a pain in my side
Since I made that girl my blushing bride
Her daddy calls her angel
And her mama calls her three times a night
Her cousin’s on my sofa
Her sister’s got my car
Her brothers drink my liquor like my house was a bar
Oh Lord, I think I want my rib back”
The title track was also recorded for Tree, but was written by Don Cook and Wally Wilson. It is probably my favorite of all the previously unreleased material on this album, and seems tailor-made for Keith. It is a mournful ballad about loneliness on the road; the Kentucky bluebird of the title seems to be a metaphor for the woman he is missing, “blown down the highway by two different winds”.
Lorrie Morgan was asked to select some of Keith’s personal favorites of his recordings to include on the album, and she picked out two of his finest recordings: ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’ from Don’t Close Your Eyes, and ‘Between An Old Memory And Me’ from I Wonder Do You Think Of Me. In addition, two of the tracks which had only been on the CD version of Don’t Close Your Eyes were included: ‘Lucky Dog’ and the romantic ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’. As at this date over two thirds of album sales were of cassette tapes, the vast majority of Keith Whitley fans would not have had the chance to hear these songs before.
A number of snippets are taken from broadcasts of various types which Keith’s family had recorded. To be honest, these are mainly the kind of thing which are interesting to her once, and perfect for a documentary feature, but they feel a little out of place on an album designed for repeat listening, the more so as they aren’t even full songs. The opening track comes from a TV appearance by the eight year old Keith in the early 1960s, singing a snatch of Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’; while his voice was a clear true treble, his adult talent was not yet fully evident. I would have loved him to cover this song at the height of his powers. Later on there is a snippet of the bluegrass radio shows he did as a teenager with his brother Dwight, Ricky Skaggs and Ricky’s father. Keith offers his best impression of Lester Flatt (taken from a 1989 interview with Ralph Emery), which he apparently did for Lester himself, which gives a nice glimpse into Keith’s personality.
This album (no longer commercially available, but used copies can be tracked down) is certainly worth having if you are a Keith Whitley completist. If you’re just discovering Keith, start with Don’t Close Your Eyes, I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, or Sad Songs And Waltzes.
Keith Whitley & Earl Thomas Conley – ‘Brotherly Love’ (1991)