After the commercial failure of his RCA debut mini-album, Keith Whitley changed directions somewhat, moving away from traditional country and more towards a more contemporary (i.e., commercial) sound. The result was 1985’s L.A. to Miami, produced by Blake Mevis, who had produced some of George Strait’s early work. At that time, country radio was still more receptive to more pop-oriented music; the neotraditionalist movement was not yet quite in full swing. That would change about a year later when Randy Travis burst onto the scene. Ironically, one of the songs that propelled Travis to stardom — “On The Other Hand” — had been previously recorded by Whitley, and is included in this collection. At first it seems like the perfect match between singer and song, but Whitley’s version pales in comparison to Travis’. This is one of the very few examples in which Whitley seemed to be phoning in his performance.
Another song to file under “Ones That Got Away” is the Dean Dillon composition “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her”, which would go on to become a #1 hit for George Strait the following year. Whitley’s version was never released as a single. His vocal performance is stellar, and this version could have been a hit had RCA released to radio before MCA beat them to the punch with Strait’s recording.
It must have been extremely frustrating for the struggling artist to watch two songs from his album become #1 hits for other artists, particularly when the first single from the album, “I’ve Got The Heart For You” performed about as well as Whitley’s previous singles, peaking at #57. Whitley’s fortune would change, however, with the next single release “Miami, My Amy”, which was written by Dean Dillon, the legendary Hank Cochran, and Royce Porter. With this typical mid-80s country-pop record, Whitley cracked the top 20 for the first time. “Miami, My Amy” climbed to #14. The remaining singles, “Ten Feet Away”, “Homecoming ’63” and the somewhat autobiographical (though not penned by Whitley himself) “Hard Livin'” all reached the top 10.
My favorite track on the album is “That Stuff”, written by Sonny Curtis and Ron Hellard. This track is less pop-oriented and is a bit closer to the type of music Whitley would go on to record in the future.
The change in musical direction paid off from a commercial standpoint; L.A. to Miami reached #26 on the Billboard Country Albums chart. But artistically it is a mixed bag. Too many of the songs are marred by slick, heavy-handed 80’s production, complete with saxophone and electronic keyboards, and there is no escaping the fact that Whitley’s voice was better suited for more traditional material. Keith himself had mixed feelings about this album; he and Mevis teamed up to record another album in the same vein, but upon its completion, Keith asked RCA to shelve the album and allow him to do more traditional material.
Twenty-four years after its release, L.A. to Miami is not a bad album — there is no such thing as a bad Keith Whitley album — but it sounds very dated to twenty-first century ears. It is interesting primarily because it shows Whitley’s progression as an artist; it’s definitely not his best work and not the place to start a collection of Keith’s music. In fact, if there’s one album in the Whitley catalog to be skipped over, this is it.
Watch a live performance of “Miami, My Amy”: