George Strait may be the King of Country, but if Keith Whitley were still alive, I feel like he would be challenging George for that title.
Whitley tragically passed away after only releasing one EP and two full-length albums during his lifetime, but those projects and his posthumous releases have made Keith Whitley a country music legend who released what’s largely seen as some of the best country music of all time.
He had an enormous impact on the genre with his neo-traditional sound in the same style as newcomers (at the time) like Strait and Randy Travis. And his sound has continued to influence generations of country artists since his passing, with many of today’s biggest stars citing Whitley as one of their biggest inspirations.
But after his first EP, country radio and others in the industry told Keith he was “too country.”
I mean, what?
Whitley’s debut EP, A Hard Act To Follow, was released in 1984. It was a moderate success, but didn’t earn Whitley any major hits at the time of its release. And Whitley would later tell the Chicago Tribune that many in Nashville, as well as country radio programmers, dismissed Whitley as being “too country.”
”I thought, ‘Too country?’ What business am I in?”
The problem was that Whitley was coming into country music at a time when the sound had been heavily influenced by pop sounds, and hadn’t yet embraced the new traditional country sound of artists like Strait, Whitley and his friend and fellow Kentucky native Ricky Skaggs.
But Whitley also recorded several songs as demos that would later become big hits from other artists – something that upset Whitley at the time.
One of those songs was “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind.” After Whitley recorded a demo of the song, his producer decided against using the song for Whitley’s debut EP. So that demo tape was ultimately used to pitch the song to George Strait, who went on to have a massive hit with the song.
And while Strait was praised for the song sounding like the late Lefty Frizzell, Whitley was criticized after his debut album for trying to sound TOO MUCH like Frizzell – although Whitley thought Strait was trying to sound too much like his demo:
”It sounded as if they said going into the session, ‘Let’s cut it as close to this demo as we can.’ Because Strait had never sounded that way on any of his records before.”
Obviously it’s ridiculous to say that Keith Whitley was “too country,” but it’s interesting to see the similarities between what Keith Whitley faced when he was first starting out and what newer traditional country artists face trying to break through at yet another time when country music has been dominated by pop sounds over the past few years. (Remember Cody Johnson being told he was “too rodeo for radio?”)
It just goes to show that even the legends had to deal with a country music industry that was more interested in chasing trends than promoting traditional country music.
And luckily Keith Whitley stayed true to himself. Just proves that listening to radio and those in the music industry isn’t always the best decision.