There are very few that can sing a sad one like Keith Whitley. At least that’s what I’ve discovered in our recent Spotlight Artist feature on Keith in May. So it’s appropriate that one of the posthumous releases featuring Keith’s vocals is titled Sad Songs and Waltzes. As a relatively new fan of country music, I fell in love with this album on a number of levels.
First, there’s the story behind the album’s production. To be honest, I sometimes love the stories behind the songs as much as I love the songs themselves and this album has many.
Keith sang with several bands early in his career before striking out on his own. J.D. Crowe and the New South was the band that provided his launching pad into country as a solo artist, and their LP Somewhere Between was the ignition.
Keith joined the band in 1978 after singing and playing with the bluegrass band Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys along with his friend Ricky Skaggs during their teens.
According to Crowe, Keith didn’t realize when he joined The New South that Crowe was also into country having met Lefty Frizzell when he himself was in his teens. So when Keith eventually approached Crowe about the band doing a country album, Crowe was more than open to it. He offered to produce one and Somewhere Between got its start featuring some great classics like Frizzell’s ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors,’ Merle Haggard’s ‘Somewhere Between’ and ‘Long Black Limousine’ released in 1968 by Jody Miller.
Crowe says in the incredible liner notes by Robert K. Oermann,
“I went to Rounder Records and said, ‘This is something I really want to do’. Ken Irwin at the label gave me the go-ahead. Ken and I came to Nashville and spent a couple of days looking for some material. So that’s where it all evolved.”
“I remember Keith being shocked when he arrived at the sessions and there was an electric guitar, steel guitar, drums and all,” says Irwin. “He had the biggest grin. From my recollection, either J.D. hadn’t told him, or might have mentioned it in passing and Keith hadn’t taken it seriously. That kid was in seventh heaven. It was a grin for the ages, as were the sessions. I remember everyone being so happy to be playing real country music. Everyone shared that feeling.”
“Keith was ecstatic,” Crowe confirms. “He couldn’t believe he was getting to do it. And that feeling shows in his performances.”
Crowe not only respected Keith as an artist, but loved him like a son. Wanting to highlight Keith’s artistry and create a legacy for him, Crowe took Keith’s heartfelt and fresh vocals from his first blush at recording country, stripped quite a bit of the original backing work (though not all) and brought in contemporary artists with a love for Keith’s music and these classic songs to remix and overdub them for reissue. The result has a life and energy to it that had faded in some of Keith’s later work after life had taken its toll.
Along with the ten original numbers are five previously unreleased tracks that Keith had cut – four for Rounder Records as a solo artist, plus the title track of this album, Willie Nelson’s ‘Sad Songs and Waltzes,’ that never made it onto the original Somewhere Between due to its being another ballad.
You’ll recognize many familiar stylings on this album. Alison Krauss, a Whitley fan herself, adds harmonies on three numbers, as does Gene Johnson of Diamond Rio and noted artist Carl Jackson on one each, and vocalists Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley of Mountain Heart on several. In addition, wonderful instrumentals are laid down by Jeff White of Vince Gill’s band, fiddler Glen Duncan, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, the late fiddler Randy Howard, and others. Crowe’s production seamlessly blends the old and the new.
The incredible liner notes include Oermann’s original notes from Somewhere Between, along with his updates written at the release of Sad Songs and Waltzes in 1999. They feature many insights into Keith’s career, reflections and behind-the-scenes stories about the original album and the production of the new one told by J.D. Crowe himself.
Oermann loved the original album for its classic country style which he felt was getting lost even back in 1982 when it was released. He writes in the update for the 1999 release,
In those days I was dismayed by how little of country music’s roots were being honored in Nashville. I think that again today. I thought that Keith Whitley’s voice was a shining beacon in a musical midnight. I still think that.
It all ended so tragically. But Keith Whitley left something truly fine behind when he departed – vocal performances that influenced the generation of country singers who would bring the art form to its commercial zenith.
But in the wake of that explosive success a marketing mentality descended on Nashville that has increasingly bled the life out of the country sound. If anything, it is even more dismaying to listen to “country” radio today than it was when I first praised Keith’s music back in 1982.
That is why this is such an important record. Again.
And of course, a second reason I fell in love with this album is the music itself.