Keith Whitley Remembered, Honored at Music Row Fete

A decade before he began playing and singing for Diamond Rio, Gene Johnson backed the late Keith Whitley when Whitley was emerging as a country vocalist with J.D. Crowe & The New South. Johnson, who plays fiddle and mandolin, was with Crowe for two years but never appeared on an album with Whitley.

Johnson attended a reception in Whitley’s honor Wednesday (Sept. 20) at BMI’s Music Row offices. Hosted by BMI’s Roger Sovine, the event celebrated the re-release, with additional tracks and new musical backing, of Rounder Records’ 1982 title, Somewhere Between.

Though Johnson left Crowe’s group right before the sessions for Somewhere Between, Crowe enlisted him for help on the reissue, released Tuesday (Sept. 19) under Whitley’s name and newly titled Sad Songs & Waltzes (see related story).

“I remember working up a lot of the material with Keith,” Johnson recalled at the informal gathering. “We talked a lot about the album. Then I had another job opportunity come up that I couldn’t turn down. So, I moved on, but I’ve always kicked myself in the butt for not being on that album.”

Crowe and engineer Steve Chandler stripped down the original recordings and overdubbed new instrumental and backing vocal tracks. Johnson, along with Alison Krauss, Carl Jackson, Dale Ann Bradley and others, supplied harmony vocals.

“It was spooky in a way,” Johnson says of the studio session. “It gave me chill bumps to sit there and listen to Keith’s vocal track coming at me. It brought me back 20 years, when we were playing together. There’s nobody I enjoyed singing with any more than Keith.”

Several others connected to the project also attended Wednesday’s reception, among them Crowe, Chandler, Bradley, Rounder Records chief Ken Irwin, guitarist Jeff White, Mountain Heart’s Steve Gulley, steel guitar player Doug Jernigan and pianist Dirk Johnson. Songwriters Tom T. Hall and Frank Dycus, who have songs on the album, and music journalist Robert Oermann, who updated his original liner notes for the reissue, also were on hand.

Whitley died 11 years ago, at age 33, of an alcohol overdose. Rounder tentatively plans to reissue an earlier album, My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame, next year. Irwin feels the timing for Sad Songs & Waltzes couldn’t be better.

“There is a need to get back to country music — making country what it was,” Irwin says. “At the time the original album was made, there wasn’t a whole lot of real country being recorded in Nashville, which is not too different from today. J.D., Steve and I all feel that this is the most country record that Keith ever recorded, and, to our tastes, his best.”

Johnson speaks for many Whitley fans who feel grateful that a new set of songs sung by Whitley is available.

“Certainly having another project out there is a tribute to him,” Johnson says, “but it’s also great for me, because I just like to hear him.”