Somewhere Between Bluegrass and Country Overlooked Gem Unearthed 11 Years After Keith Whitley’s Death

Overlooked Gem Unearthed 11 Years After Keith Whitley's Death

Keith Whitley rose to fame in the late ’80s as a talented country singer and husband of Lorrie Morgan, but Somewhere Between, an album released in 1982 with bluegrass band J. D. Crowe & The New South, offered earlier proof that he was destined to become a great vocal stylist.

Rounder Records reissued the album Tuesday (Sept. 19) under Whitley’s name. Retitled Sad Songs & Waltzes, the new edition emphasizes his talents as a honky-tonk stylist. It appears 11 years after Whitley’s untimely death on May 9, 1989, at age 33, from an alcohol overdose.

When he died, Whitley’s recording career for RCA had just started to crest. Beginning with “Don’t Close Your Eyes” in 1988 and continuing with “When You Say Nothing at All,” “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” and the posthumous releases “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothing,” he registered five consecutive No. 1 country hits.

Banjo legend and bandleader Crowe produced both the 1982 release, Somewhere Between, and Rounder’s new reissue. When his band recorded the album originally, Crowe says, few people knew Whitley could make the shift from bluegrass to country.

“All they heard him do was bluegrass up until that point,” Crowe recalls, “and most of the fans he got after his hits didn’t even know about the album. The record never was promoted like it should have been. It really wasn’t heard outside musician circles. So, in a sense, this is a whole new project for fans to discover.”

The expanded reissue includes five previously unreleased recordings. Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” was cut during sessions for Somewhere Between but did not make the original LP because Crowe felt the album was already too ballad-heavy.

The other four unissued recordings were demos produced by Don Gant in 1983 after Whitley left the New South. Rounder bankrolled those sessions in hopes of landing a major country record deal for Whitley in the same way the company had placed boogie-blues artist George Thorogood with EMI America. After Whitley signed with RCA, nothing further happened with the four demos.

Last year, Crowe and engineer Steve Chandler stripped down the original recordings — the four demos and the 11 tracks from the Somewhere Between sessions — and overdubbed new instrumental and backing vocal tracks.

Alison Krauss — linked to Whitley because she won a Country Music Association award for Single of the Year in 1995 with a cover of his “When You Say Nothing at All” — provides harmony vocals on three tracks.

Diamond Rio’s Gene Johnson (a former member of Crowe’s band) and a group of talented country and bluegrass artists including Carl Jackson, Jeff White, Dale Ann Bradley, Glen Duncan, Mountain Heart’s Steve Gulley, Hargus “Pig” Robbins and the late fiddler Randy Howard also frame Whitley’s bent-note lead singing.

The new recordings sound seamless and should allay concerns about posthumous doctoring of Whitley’s work with slick or inappropriate backing. Twice before, Whitley’s unfinished recordings have been filled out posthumously, with mixed results — on 1991’s Kentucky Bluebird, released by RCA, and on 1995’s Wherever You Are Tonight, issued on RCA subsidiary BNA.

The music on the original tracks for Somewhere Between sounded dated, Crowe feels. “I changed the musicians to make it sound more up to date,” he says. “Now it sounds like it was made today as opposed to 1981. Keith’s vocal is a lot cleaner and the music is tighter. I thought it was well worth doing.”

Sad Songs & Waltzes is hardcore honky-tonk, as country as anything Whitley ever recorded and surprising, perhaps, given Crowe’s bluegrass credentials. But the banjo ace never has drawn rigid distinctions between country and bluegrass. A native of Lexington, Ky., Crowe performed on Jimmy Martin’s seminal Decca recordings in the late ’50s, and his own groups have been a remarkable proving ground for bluegrass musicians including Red Allen, Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas. By the time Whitley joined the New South in 1978, the band was leaning away from traditional bluegrass toward a sound that has been labeled country-grass. The group’s diverse repertoire included songs by country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, folk balladeer Gordon Lightfoot and the Rolling Stones.

From Sandy Hook, Ky., Whitley played with Skaggs in the East Kentucky Mountain Boys before he and Skaggs, both teenagers, joined Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys in 1970. Whitley toured and recorded with Stanley on and off for the next eight years, but steeped as much in the honky-tonk of Lefty Frizzell and George Jones as in the bluegrass of Stanley, he eventually switched to Crowe’s band to pursue country music where his heart had been all along.

“I got into bluegrass music as a way to get in a band,” Whitley explained to Ed Morris in a quote that appears in the liner notes to RCA’s The Essential Keith Whitley. “I couldn’t put together a country band. Back in Sandy Hook, there were no steel guitar players, no drummers. But there were a lot of excellent bluegrass players … So, in order to get in a band, I started listening to bluegrass music. I learned to like it real well.”

Later, Morris writes, as Whitley moved into country music, the bluegrass connection “was a linkage [he] deeply resented since he felt it distorted his basic identity and thwarted his artistic aims.”

Whitley recorded and performed country-grass with the New South between 1978 and 1981, but Crowe’s concept for Somewhere Between was more singular. He wanted to produce an out-and-out country album Whitley could use as a stepping stone to a solo country record deal. Helped by the solo demos, it worked. In 1984, Whitley moved to Nashville, secured a contract with RCA and charted a single, “Turn Me to Love,” featuring Patty Loveless on background vocals.

“I wanted to help him because I knew he wanted to do country and he wanted to get a label to work with him in Nashville,” Crowe says. “I knew he was good enough to do it, so I called Ken Irwin at Rounder and talked to him about making a country album. Keith was tickled to be able to sing that type of material.

“I hoped he would get something out of it,” he continues. “I told him Somewhere Between could be like a professional demo to pitch to bigger record companies. Naturally, I knew once I did that, I would have to replace him. I was pretty sure a label would pick him up, so I was prepared for that. That’s what you do — you don’t want to hold someone back.”

Somewhere Between appeared at a time when the country-pop of Alabama, the Oak Ridge Boys and Kenny Rogers was giving way to a more traditional strain of country music. Ricky Skaggs and George Strait were emerging as significant talents, and Randy Travis would appear in 1986 to lead a whole wave of “new traditionalists” including Whitley himself.

In that sense, Somewhere Between was ahead of its time. The title cut was written by Merle Haggard and first recorded by Haggard and Bonnie Owens. The album also features covers of Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” Tom T. Hall’s “Another Town,” Billy Joe Shaver’s “To Be Loved by a Woman” and the 1968 Jody Miller hit, “Long Black Limousine.”

In addition to Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” the other previously unissued recordings include “Honk Tonk Crazy” (a modest hit for Gene Watson in 1987), “I Don’t Know You Well Enough to Say Goodbye” (an early Kix Brooks composition) and “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” a No.1 hit for George Strait in 1984.

Whitley missed the boat on “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” Crowe says, because RCA felt the song was too traditional. “At first, RCA didn’t produce Keith like they should have,” he feels. “They didn’t get the real Keith out there. Keith had a chance at ’Fort Worth’ first, but they tried to make him a bubble-gum pop singer. That’s not his style. He had that song, and they wouldn’t let him record it. George Strait heard Keith’s recording and got it, the arrangement and everything.”

The evidence suggests that RCA eventually came around to Whitley’s way of thinking — and singing. After some mildly successful recordings with Blake Mevis (producer of Strait’s early work), he hooked up with producer Garth Fundis for the albums Don’t Close Your Eyes (which includes “I Never Go Around Mirrors”) and the posthumous I Wonder Do You Think of Me.

“He was one of those singers that doesn’t come along very often,” Crowe says. “He was born to sing. He was a singer’s singer, in a category with George Jones, Merle Haggard and Lefty Frizzell. When you’re in that category, that’s the tops. You can’t beat that. He was a stylist. His favorite singers were Lefty Frizzell and George Jones. He kind of patterned himself some after them, but he also came into his own and sounded like Keith Whitley.”