In 1995 BNA (successor to RCA) released one more album of Keith Whitley’s previously unreleased material, this time solely drawn from his songwriter demos for Tree. This album really showcases Keith the singer-songwriter, something he never had the chance to show during his lifetime, as he wrote or co-wrote every track. The songs are all pretty good, although they do not all quite match up to the very best of the songs he recorded by other writers.
Re-production duties are handled by Steve Lindsey and Benny Quinn, and lean a little more heavily to strings and orchestration on some tracks than is entirely desirable, but the vocals reveal Keith at his best. Even though these recordings were never originally intended for public consumption, they were designed to show off the songs to other artists looking for material, and no doubt Keith felt a strong connection to them, which comes out strongly in the end result.
The most frequent co-writer on these tracks is Don Cook, best known these days as producer of Brooks & Dunn, but also a very competent songwriter in his own right. He and Keith wrote half the tracks included on Wherever You Are Tonight, including the excellent title track, which was released as a single to promote the album. It is a melancholy tale of a night-radio DJ in love with one of his callers: “She brought love to this lonely place/Even though I never even saw her face”. We don’t know why she stopped calling in, but the protagonist moves from third person narrative to address her directly in the chorus:
“I still dream about her and me
And imagine how good it could be
This song goes out to you
Wherever you are tonight.”
Despite the radio theme, lovely tune, and beautiful vocal, the song regrettably failed to attract any attention at country radio, and the label never again released a Keith Whitley single.
Keith and Don collaborated on another engrossing story song in the shape of ‘Daddy Loved Trains’, about growing up with a mostly-absent railroad worker father:
“Mama did her best to do it all when Dad was gone
Every night she’d swear he’d really rather be at home
Sometimes we’d believe her – til we’d look in daddy’s eyes
He had that faraway look that he never could disguise
Mama loved Daddy, but Daddy loved trains
The steel rails controlled him like whiskey in his brain
Number 2 diesel fuel flowed through his veins
Mama loved Daddy – but Daddy loved trains.”
Trains songs per se had already gone out of fashion in the 1980s when this song was written, but of course it is really about obsession getting in the way of marriage and family life, and the underlying feeling might easily relate to other issues. It is poignant to realize that Keith’s choice of analogy was instinctively alcohol.
The classy ballad ‘Light At The End Of The Tunnel’ (written by Keith and Don in 1987) was cut by John Anderson on his 1988 album 10, but even though I love John Anderson’s voice, I prefer Keith’s tender version, imbued with sadness as despite the song’s surface message of hope it is overshadowed by the losses of the past:
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel
There’s a chance that it ain’t gonna rain
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel
And for once it ain’t a fast movin’ train
I’ve been sheltered and shattered and shaken
By the lessons that life made me learn
There were choices and chances worth takin’
And some bridges I hated to burn”.
Keith and Don teamed up with the legendary writer Curly Putnam to write ‘I’m Not That Easy To Forget’, which sounds like a country classic as Keith warns his ex,“You’re gonna find a love like mine just won’t lay down and die/The future’s lookin’ bright for you, but your past ain’t over yet/’Cause I’m not that easy to forget.”
With younger songwriter Gary Nicholson, Keith and Don wrote the fun uptempo (if slightly overproduced) ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ about a woman who is a little too hot to handle.
Another regular collaborator, Tree staff writer Bill Caswell, co-wrote three of the songs included on Wherever You Are Tonight. The best of these is the sexy up-tempo ‘Just How Bad Do You Wanna Feel Good’ warns the lady “lookin’ for a lifetime not a one night stand” that “one night’s about as far ahead as I ever plan“, and challenges her, “Does your conscience say no but the woman in you keep sayin’ you should/We could drive each other crazy if only you would/Honey, just how bad do you wanna feel good?”
The opening track ‘I’m Losing You All Over Again’ and ‘Leave Well Enough Alone’ are both pleasant and impeccably sung, but less memorable lyrically than most of the other material here, and the former is overladen with orchestration.
Keith wrote ‘Blind And Afraid Of The Dark’ with the great Max D. Barnes; it’s a fine if rather depressing song about the effects of losing someone, which has left him “broken and falling apart/When you left you left my heart/Blind and afraid of the dark“.
Keith was also capable of writing a good song without outside assistance, and he proves that here with the highly entertaining ‘Buck’, a slightly tongue-in-cheek appeal for a comeback by Buck Owens inspired by the pop-leaning state of mid ’80s country radio (before the neo-traditional revival). Buck was one of the most successful country artists of the 1960s with his distinctive Bakersfield Sound, but he had retired in the 1970s. Interestingly, he had been managed by Keith’s manager Jack McFadden. (He was indeed to make a comeback in 1988 after fan Dwight Yoakam recruited him to sing on the #1 hit ‘Streets Of Bakersfield’.) Some aspects of the song have dated, not least the appeal to Buck, who died in 2006 – others, notably the criticism of country radio have come full circle and ring true again:
“They say country music’s in a mess
Can it be saved is anybody’s guess
We need someone to lend a helpin’ hand
And I believe that I know just the man
On the radio pop music is the rage
We need someone to guide us through this stage
If the industry would only take a chance
Help’s a-waitin’ at the old Buck Owens ranch …
The pop sounds we’re all hearing soon will yield
To the comeback of the man from Bakersfield
Everybody’s going pop
Buck could bring that to a stop
It’s sure to be good luck
Let’s bring back Buck”
The chorus features convincing Buck-soundalike harmony vocals and Bakersfield Sound guitar, which add to the charm of the track.
The album did not chart, and to date BNA has released no more albums of Keith’s unreleased material, although a number of compilations have been issued, and two more tracks have emerged from the vaults on these: Keith’s lovely version of the country standard ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down’ on RCA Country Legends (our giveaway this month) and ‘I Wonder Where You Are Tonight’ from the cassette version of LA To Miami, which was released digitally and on CD via The Essential Keith Whitley.