Keith Whitley’s Musical Legacy Endures Two Decades After His Death

Influential Singer Brought Bluegrass Intensity to His Country Songs

Updated and Corrected, May 9, 2009, 11:15 a.m. ET — A computer data entry error in the first paragraph of the version of this story published on May 8, 2009 substituted another artist’s name for that of Keith Whitley. CMT.com regrets the error.

The news arrived on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in May, and it hit Music Row like a blow to the stomach. Keith Whitley was dead.

Insiders knew that the young singer — he was only 33 — drank too much. But he looked so damn good with that halo of tight blond curls, that devilishly pointed beard and those wild dancing eyes. And he sang with such earnestness and conviction that even those close to him couldn’t imagine he would check out so abruptly. Drunks were supposed to die slowly, weren’t they?

Whitley’s wife and fellow country singer, Lorrie Morgan, was on her way to do a show in Alaska when he breathed his last at their home in Goodlettsville, Tenn. He also left behind an infant son and a stepdaughter.

People arriving for work the morning after Whitley’s death found the lampposts along Music Row tied with black ribbons.

Saturday (May 9) is the 20th anniversary of Whitley’s untimely exit. While brief, his contributions to country music still shine brightly.

Jesse Keith Whitley grew up in the small community of Sandy Hook in eastern Kentucky. Always fascinated by music, he made his television debut on The Buddy Starcher Show in Charleston, W.Va., when he was 8 years old, singing Hank Williams‘ “You Win Again.” (An audio fragment from that appearance is on Whitley’s posthumous album, Kentucky Bluebird.)

In his early teens, Whitley teamed with fellow Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs to form their own bluegrass band, one that was modeled on the Stanley Brothers‘ high, lonesome sound. That homage paid off when, in 1970, Ralph Stanley heard them perform. “I walked in,” the bluegrass pioneer told an interviewer, “and they were doing the Stanley Brothers better than the Stanleys.”

Soon after, Whitley and Skaggs joined Stanley’s band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Whitley stayed with the band, on and off, until 1978. Afterward, he performed with J.D. Crowe & the New South, an alliance that in 1982 produced Somewhere Between, a critically-acclaimed, country-tinged album.

By this time, Skaggs had already made the transition from bluegrass to country and was regularly scoring No. 1 songs as a solo artist and hauling away awards from the Country Music Association.

Whitley signed to RCA and charted his first country single for the label in September 1984. Called “Turn Me to Love,” it barely stirred the waters, peaking at No. 59. The next three singles were similarly underwhelming.

But then, in 1986, his “Ten Feet Away” soared to an attention-getting No. 9, as did the follow-up release, “Homecoming ’63.”

That same year, Whitley married Morgan, who had just joined the RCA roster. It was the second marriage for both. Their son, whom they named Jesse Keith, was born in 1987.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Whitley charted a No. 1 single, the Bob McDill-penned weeper called “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” The next four singles would go No. 1 as well. They were “When You Say Nothing at All,” “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” (the last one to top the charts before he died), “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothin’.”

“I’m No Stranger to the Rain” won the Country Music Association award for single of the year in the autumn following Whitley’s death. Then, in 1990, “‘Til a Tear Becomes a Rose,” a song Whitley had recorded as a demo and to which Morgan added her voice, was voted the CMA’s vocal event of the year.

Whitley earned no gold or platinum albums during his lifetime, but they rolled in soon after: Don’t Close Your Eyes went gold two months after his death. I Wonder Do You Think of Me hit gold in 1990. Greatest Hits scored platinum in 1993. And Super Hits achieved gold in 2003.

Although Whitley never had a major hit with any of his own songs, he showed considerable promise as a songwriter, often collaborating with such pros as Kix Brooks, Curly Putman and Don Cook. “Hopelessly Yours,” one of his co-writes, charted for John Conlee and the duo of Suzy Bogguss and Lee Greenwood and earned a BMI award.

One Whitley composition that’s never been released, except online, is called “I’ve Done Everything Hank Did but Die.”

Faye Whitley, Keith’s mother, told CMT.com from her home in Grayson, Kentucky, that she knows of no observances planned for this anniversary. She says her grandson, Jesse Keith, still visits her and has his own band.

Record producer Garth Fundis, who worked with Keith Whitley during his most productive years as a solo artist, still wonders what direction the singer’s music would have taken had he lived.

“Twenty years is a long time to miss someone, but I’ll never get past the ‘what might have been’ for my pal, Keith Whitley,” Fundis said. “He was just getting to the good part. His dreams were coming true after three back-to-back No. 1 records. And as a young family man, he was just over the moon.

“While he was ‘no stranger to the rain,’ he was truly one of the most gifted singers and funniest men I’ve ever known. Every once in a while, I hear a song that should have been or could have been his, and I still get a lump in my throat thinking about him. It’s a testament to his soulful talent that so many young singers today cite him as an inspiration. It’s a treat to be in a club when some young gun covers one of his songs and the place goes quiet [until everyone begins] singing along. That is the best. I miss my friend, but in my mind I still see his smile.”