One of the problems with making a tribute album is how far the participants are prepared to bring something of themselves to the interpretation, and how far they are so concerned to pay their respects the artist being honored, that the end result is little more than very tasteful, high-class karaoke.
The tribute album produced by BNA, the successor to Keith Whitley’s record label RCA, in 1994, five years after his death, does sometimes fall into that trap, but it makes one or two decisions which mark it out, too. The highly respected Randy Scruggs took on production duties, with Lorrie Morgan as executive producer. Another of those involved was songwriter Byron Hill, who says on his website that the project was the one he enjoyed working on most in his period as A&R director for BNA (1993-1994).
Some of the hottest artists of the mid 90s were recruited for the project, and most of them give respectful versions of some of Keith’s best-known songs, which speak well of their admiration of Keith, but fall a little flat when compared to the originals. Alan Jackson takes on ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’; Tracy Lawrence tries ‘I’m Over You’; Joe Diffie sings ‘I’m No Stranger To the Rain’; and Mark Chesnutt tackles ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. They are all fine singers in their own right, and their versions of Keith’s hits are pleasant enough to listen to, but the overriding adjective which comes to mind while listening is ‘nice’. They lack something of the passion Keith brought to them, and perhaps this is because they were thinking of the act of tribute they were paying rather than the song itself. I suspect that if any one of these gentlemen had independently decided to record the song on one of his own albums, it would have had a different approach and more life. I think what is missing is inspiration.
Diamond Rio are a little more successful bringing something new to their track, ‘Ten Feet Away’, one of the better songs on LA To Miami. This is partly because the natural advantage of being a harmony-based band automatically brings a new feel to a song popularised by a solo singer, and partly because the new version has better production. Also very pleasing and not overawed by the task is the duet by Keith’s old friend Ricky Skaggs with Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, on ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’, the least familiar of all the covers. This traditional-sounding bluegrass waltz was written by Ricky’s mother Dorothy Skaggs, and originally recorded by Keith and Ricky as precociously talented teenagers on their 1971 set Second Generation Bluegrass.
The artist who benefitted most from participating was bluegrass singer/fiddler Alison Krauss, who does bring her own voice to the song she covers. Her enchanting vocals on ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ actually brought her an unexpected breakthrough on country radio which had hitherto completely ignored her, as the track was released as a single to promote the album and reached #3 on Billboard. Some enterprising DJs even cobbled together an unofficial duet by playing parts of Alison’s version and parts of Keith’s consecutively.
Two songs offered something different: brand new songs inspired by Keith and his life. The little-known and now largely forgotten Daron Norwood co-wrote (with Wayne Perry) and recorded the rather touching ‘Little Boy Lost’. He sings with a delicate sympathy and brings some insight to Keith’s tragic fate:
“A young man out playing his guitar
Said, ‘Someday Mom I’m gonna be a star’
She laughed and said ‘You’ve always been a dreamer’
Standing on the Opry stage he sings
He’s no longer standing in the wings
Now there’s nothing left for him to dream
He’s a little boy lost, a little boy blue,
Wishing sometimes dreams didn’t come true
He paid the price, now he knows the cost
Inside the man there’s a little boy lost
Kentucky bluebird you finally spread your wings to fly
Left behind a legacy that in our hearts will never die.”
Album producer Randy Scruggs and Larry Cordle, who had known Keith for years, wrote the inspirational ‘A Voice Still Rings True’, also based on Keith’s life with occasional nods to his hits (“he wasn’t a stranger to the rain or is danger”). Lead vocals were shared among a host of stars: Joe Diffie, Ricky Skaggs, T Graham Brown, Tanya Tucker, Sawyer Brown, Steve Wariner, Earl Thomas Conley, Deborah Allen, Mark Collie and John Anderson all had solo or duet lines, although some are more prominent in the mix than others.
These tribute songs are the moments when this album really comes to life for me.
The lyrics for Vince Gill’s beautiful ode to Keith, ‘Go Rest High On That Mountain’, are included in the liner notes, although the song itself is regrettably conspicuous by its absence. One can only imagine a label conflict prevented Vince from taking part in the tribute album, as he did record the song on his own 1994 release When Love Finds You, and it was released as the final single from that album the following year. It would have been a much appreciated additon to this album.
Finally, Keith’s own authentic voice is heard on this album. Four more tracks produced by Blake Mevis were resurrected; this time they came from sessions recorded in 1984 when Keith was working on his RCA debut, and Mevis himself added new production to make them sound less dated. Three of the four are very good and deserve to be heard; the fourth, ‘I Just Want You’ is a rather forgettable love song despite the duet vocal added by Lorrie Morgan.
‘I’m Gonna Hurt Her On The Radio’ is a rather good mid-tempo ballad written by Tommy Brasfield and Mac McAnally about salving the pain of losing a lover and getting revenge by turning the story into a country hit:
“she’s gonna pay me back in royalties for bringing me down to my knees …
I’m gonna hurt her on the radio,
She’s gonna hear me everywhere she goes
Gonna tell the world the way she done me wrong
I’ll make a million while she sings along,
She thinks she’s heard the last of my love songs
She wont feel that for long”
‘Charlotte’s In North Carolina’ is not a geography lesson, but another pretty good song about losing in love contributed by Dean Dillon, Kent Robbins, David Willis and producer Mevis, as the eponymous Charlotte leaves the protagonist in bewildered if punning “St Louis misery”. Keith himself co-wrote ‘The Comeback Kid’ with Hank Cochran and Dean Dillon, about someone calling it quits on a relationship:
“You called me the comeback kid,
That’s what I always did
Came running back to you time after time …
The comeback kid won’t be coming back this time
This time girl when you phone me and try to lay that guilt trip on me
The comeback kid’s gonna have a different comeback line”.
Keith’s crisp, incisive vocals are excellent on these tracks, and a sad reminder of just what country music lost with his death, and Blake Mevis does a good job with the re-production.
Grade: B (A for effort)
You can download all the tracks apart from the Alison Krauss track at Amazon, and used copies of the original CD appear to be available cheaply.