Without a doubt one of the greatest to ever do it.
Despite a career that was cut all too short by his untimely death on this date 34 years ago, and only 5 years after the release of his first album, Keith Whitley has managed to cement his place as one of the greatest country singers of all time.
Whitley moved to Nashville in 1983 to pursue a country music career, and quickly landed a record deal off the strength of his neotraditional brand of country that was coming back into style with artists like George Strait and Randy Travis.
His first release, A Hard Act to Follow, was a 6-song EP that received mixed reviews for Whitley’s attempts at trying to sound too “mainstream.” But by 1985, Whitley had found his sound on his debut full-length album, L.A. to Miami.
The album would give Whitley his first of many hits with “Miami, My Amy,” as well as “Homecoming ’63” and “Hard Livin’,” and also featured “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” which would go on to become a hit for George Strait a few years later after Whitley decided not to release his version as a single, as well as “On the Other Hand,” which would later be released by Randy Travis.
While on tour after the release of L.A. to Miami, Whitley met Lorrie Morgan and the two were married soon after, with their only child Jesse Keith Whitley being born in 1987.
Before the release of his next album, Whitley asked for greater creative control over the songs, and the result was his second studio album, Don’t Close Your Eyes, in 1988.
The album would go on to become Whitley’s most iconic, giving rise to hits like the title track as well as classics like “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” and “When You Say Nothing At All,” Whitley’s first three #1 hits.
“Don’t Close Your Eyes” would be named the top country song of 1988 by Billboard, and Whitley earned his first and only solo CMA Award for “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” which also scored a Grammy nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Whitley went back into the studio and finished up his third full-length album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me. But unfortunately, he wouldn’t make it to see the album’s release.
On May 9, 1989, Whitley had a visit from his brother-in-law, and they two planned to play golf and have lunch. His brother-in-law left the house briefly, and when he returned he found Whitley unresponsive in his bed. Keith Whitley was pronounced dead at the hospital at age 34.
Whitley’s cause of death was revealed to be acute alcohol poisoning, and his blood alcohol content was found to be .47 (more than 5 times the legal limit to drive of .08).
Tributes to Whitley poured in, with Waylon Jennings saying that Keith Whitley was “the greatest country music singer ever.” Music Row was lined with black ribbons in honor of Whitley after his sudden death.
Whitley had been open about his struggles with alcohol, speaking on his addiction just months before his death:
”I learned to do things the way the old-timers did it. I thought everybody had to drink to be in this business.
Lefty drank, Hank drank, George Jones was still drinking, and I had to. That`s just the way it was. You couldn’t put that soul in your singing if you weren’t about three sheets in the wind.
That was just the way we did it in Sandy Hook. And it was a lot of fun. For me, the past isn’t deep and dark; I had a lot of fun I couldn’t have had any other way. But somewhere along the way it turned on me. Where it used to be a friend, it became an enemy.”
Just three months after his death, Whitley’s third studio album was released posthumously, giving Whitley two more #1 hits to add to his string of five straight with “I Wonder Do You Think Of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothin’.”
The year following his passing, a greatest hits album was released featuring two new songs, a demo that Whitley had recorded with his wife Lorrie Morgan called “‘Til a Tear Becomes a Rose” and the (now-heartbreaking) tribute to his wife “Tell Lorrie I Love Her,” which Whitley had recorded at home as a work tape for a friend to sing at Whitley’s wedding to Morgan.
Another posthumous album, Kentucky Bluebird, was released in 1991, featuring a mix of songs Whitley had recorded for an album that was scrapped in 1987 and demos of new music he had been working on. And in 1995, another posthumous album, Wherever You Are Tonight, containing 10 more of Whitley’s demo recordings was released.
The final release from Whitley came in 2000 with Sad Songs and Waltzes, an album originally recorded while Whitley was a member of bluegrass band J.D. Crowe and the New South. Whitley’s vocal tracks were kept for the album, while new instrumentation and harmony vocals were added to create the final album of Keith Whitley’s legendary career.
Last year, Keith Whitley was finally given his rightful place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, with his widow Lorrie Morgan accepting the honor in Keith’s absence.
I’ve said many times that if Keith Whitley hadn’t passed away in 1989, he would be firmly at the top of the list of greatest country singers of all time. The heartbreak in his voice and lyrics paired with his neo-traditional country sound managed to put him in the conversation despite a relatively short career and only releasing two full-length albums during his lifetime.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a country singer these days who isn’t influenced by Keith Whitley – everybody from Morgan Wallen to Randall King have named him as an inspiration.
He was one of a kind, and it’s only tragic that he wasn’t with us for longer than he was.