There’s always discussion around the criteria for being called the greatest of all time.
In the country music world, some of these are obvious: Big singles, top to bottom well-written albums, name recognition, respect of those in the industry, and the ability to get fans in seats around the country, if not the world.
But there’s another metric that tends to gets overlooked until specific circumstances are brought up, and that is longevity.
In baseball, the go to example of time working against a player’s case is Sandy Koufax, a pitcher who played 12 seasons for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers in the 50’s and 60’s.
While a 12 year career doesn’t seem too short on the surface, diving into his stats reveals pretty much all of his success came in a 6 year run from 1961 to 1966. In that span, he had a record of 129-47, lead the league in ERA 5 times, had over 25 wins 3 times, threw 115 complete games (35 of which were shutouts), and won 3 Cy Young’s and an MVP (finishing as MVP runner up an additional 2 times). Many baseball experts say his 4 season stretch from 1963 to 1966 was the greatest of any player ever.
But this magical run was cut short due to a severe elbow injury, his last season being one of the greatest pitched of all-time, which leads people to imagine what would have been had his arm held up. Naturally, his career stats don’t come close to those icons who pitched for 20 plus seasons, so how do you compare the two careers to say which one was the best?
Well, in country music we have our own Sandy Koufax and his name is Keith Whitley.
Born on July 1st, 1954 in Ashland, Kentucky, Keith was a wild child from the start, known to drink bootleg whiskey and race cars down steep mountainsides in his teens, which resulted in two major accidents, one which killed his friend and nearly broke his neck and another where he drove his car off a 120 foot cliff into a frozen river but escaped with only a broken collar bone.
He was a lifelong music enthusiast and got his start when he competed in a music contest that Ricky Skaggs happened to be in when they were both just 16. The two joined an existing band and began catching fire within the bluegrass scene.
He moved to Nashville in 1983 to pursue a solo country music career, signed to RCA Records, and released his first album, A Hard Act To Follow, in 1984.
But much like Koufax, this early part of his “big league” career didn’t have the pop he hoped for, as critics claimed the project was erratic and had no unique style.
So he went back to the drawing board and came out with his sophomore album, L.A. To Miami, which gave him his first taste of true success, similar to Koufax’s much improved seasons in 1961 and 1962.
Featuring tracks like “Miami, My Amy,” “Nobody In His Right Mind Would Have Left Her,” and “On The Other Hand”, he got his first Top 20 hit with the former and his name began to spread as fans recognized the once in a lifetime vocal talent he possessed.
However, this success was nothing compared to what his third album would bring. After requesting and receiving almost total creative control over his next project, he released the album that put him in the record books, Don’t Close Your Eyes, in 1988. Much like Koufax’s final 4 seasons, it’s hard to find a person who will claim this isn’t one of, if not the, greatest album of all-time.
From originals like title track, “I’m No Stranger To The Rain,” and “When You Say Nothing At All,” to the “I Never Go Around Mirrors” cover, the entire record was beyond fantastic and it was a huge commercial success. The album peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, but produced 3 number one singles and was certified gold by the RIAA.
Due to this album, Keith Whitley was a certified star but tragically his flame was cut short.
Less than a year after the album was released, Keith died of alcohol poisoning at his home. He was just 34 years old.
Of course, the “tragedy” of Koufax’s career being cut short is nothing compared to actually losing one’s life, but the parallel still holds true; One short stint of absolute stardom and unquestioned greatness ending well before its time.
Of course the same could be said for a number of great entertainers: Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, the Sex Pistols and many others.
So how does Keith stack up if we were to try and pick a greatest of all time? How does one extremely bright flash, maybe the brightest flash of all, compare to a slow steady burn? What’s more important, the height of the peak or the time spent on top?
Those are all questions I don’t have the answers to and won’t pretend like I can solve them here.
But undoubtedly, Keith Whitley belong at minimum in the conversation, and even possibly deserves to be called the greatest country singer of all-time.