When the greatest hillbilly stylists are the topic, Keith Whitley's name will forever be on a list that includes the likes of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and Lefty Frizz

When the greatest hillbilly stylists are the topic, Keith Whitley's name will forever be on a list that includes the likes of George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and Lefty Frizzell. The only difference is that Whitley came and went like a lightening bolt in country's modern era (he died from accidental alcohol poisoning in 1989). Most casual fans recall only Whitley's profoundly moving RCA ballads, like "Don't Close Your Eyes" and "I'm No Stranger to the Rain," but more devoted followers remember them as the beginning of his tragic end. A huge part of what led to those meteoric chart-toppers is chronicled in the grooves of Second Generation, Whitley's teenage teaming with boyhood friend Ricky Skaggs. Together, Whitley and Skaggs collaborated in an affectionate tribute to the high mountain harmony and musicianship of the Stanley Brothers, who were an almost singular influence on the talented pair as they grew up in the flinty hills and hollers of their native Kentucky. By the time the sessions were held in the early summer of 1971—when the high school-aged boys had joined Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys and had become such a popular featured act on Stanley's road show—they needed something on record to sell to fans. Originally hired to give Stanley's band instrumental and harmony muscle, Whitley and Skaggs evolved quickly into a main attraction. Half of the 12 cuts are Stanley Brothers standards, including the sweet sentimentality in "Memories of Mother." Whitley and Skaggs demonstrated a keen knack for finding newer material to balance out the well-worn songs that added up to a stunning showcase of their vocal and instrumental flair. With Whitley on guitar and Skaggs on mandolin, the peppy "Daybreak in Dixie" is one of the reissue's tastiest treats. Led by Stanley's banjo, sidemen Curly Ray Cline, Roy Lee Centers, and Jack Cook round out the session personnel on songs that include "Don't Cheat in Our Hometown" (another Stanley classic that ultimately became Skaggs' sixth No. 1 country hit in 1984). To be certain, Skaggs remains the only happy ending to the story he began with Whitley. But with his credentials intact as the most successful country artist in history to emerge from bluegrass, Skaggs' well-documented successful return as the standard bearer for the genre makes the timing of this reissue ideal. It's a perfectly apt companion to Skaggs' new History of the Future and will be deservedly hailed among the most important rediscoveries in what's shaping up to be remembered as the year bluegrass became hip again.—WJ

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