How Keith Whitley's Conflicted Legacy Spawned an 'Authentic' Country Revival

Jake Worthington, Keith Whitley
Worthington: Trae Patton/NBC, Whitley: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

When NBC launched the current season of The Voice on Feb. 24, one of the stunners was a performance of “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”

The singer was Jake Worthington, a Texan who got three of the four coaches to turn their chairs around and compete to nab him for their teams. Particularly surprising was the kid’s age — at 17, most of Worthington’s country-loving peers are being influenced heavily by the bro-country of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. Yet here he was singing a traditional country ballad that was introduced by Keith Whitley, who died eight years before Worthington was even born.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, God, this is gonna be great or be a nosedive,’ ” says Joe Nichols. “But that kid made it. Pulling off Keith Whitley is hard. That guy could sing. And being on a talent show, it can expose your weaknesses, trying to sing a Keith Whitley song.”

Exposing vulnerabilities was, in many ways, Whitley’s greatest legacy. May 9 will mark 25 years since he died of alcohol poisoning. Whitley had earned his first three No. 1 singles in the previous nine months. The third, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” addressed addiction issues that he had publicly confessed to, and apparently thought he had beaten. Nashville’s music community was openly pulling for him, in part because the raw emotional qualities he revealed in his performances created the kind of personal connection that inspires many artists to pursue the business.

“There was no Pro Tools at that point,” says Whitley’s last producer, Garth Fundis, who — as Slate Creek president/-creative director — is currently working with singer/songwriter Brandy Clark. “Pitch accuracy and things like that were important, but someone who could express the emotion and really own the song, so to speak, that counted for a lot. And Keith certainly knew how to do that.”

Passing away just as he reached his commercial peak certainly impacted Whitley’s legacy, just as tragic early deaths enhanced the legends of such icons as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Kurt Cobain. But beyond the dramatic storyline, Whitley’s ability to touch a nerve served him well in his absence, helping to influence a future generation of country stars.

Tim McGraw, inspired in part by Whitley’s music, famously arrived in Nashville the same day Whitley died. And he has been known to incorporate Whitley’s image into concert videos or to cover “Don’t Close Your Eyes” onstage. Ronnie Dunn, who came to prominence two years after Whitley’s death as a member of Brooks & Dunn, name-checks the late singer in “Let’s Get the Beer Joint Rockin’ ” on the just-released album "Peace Love and Country Music." And Dierks Bentley made a surprise appearance at Nichols’ fan club party during the 2011 CMA Music Festival to duet on Whitley’s “I’m Over You.”

“My generation of country singers listens to a lot of his music, whether it’s me or Luke or [Jason] Aldean or Miranda [Lambert],” says Bentley. “I’ve listened to a lot of Keith Whitley from Miranda on the bus.”

Chris Young paid $15,000 to own Whitley’s Martin Sigma guitar. He played it at the Grand Ole Opry in October 2011, and he used it during songwriting sessions that produced some of the material on his current album, "A.M."

“I can still go out on one of my shows and play ‘When You Say Nothing at All,’ and people know all the words to it,” notes Young.

But after 25 years, Whitley’s influence is more difficult to detect. Nichols, Young and Dustin Lynch — three current artists with voices that are well-suited to the rich type of material that Whitley specialized in — have all injected pop and rock elements into their recordings to make them more accessible for contemporary country radio. Young, who was 3 when Whitley passed away, only became aware of him after he heard a Christmas duet that paired Whitley with Alan Jackson, who was having hits when Young’s musical tastes were being formed. Lynch, who is one month older than Young, knew little of Whitley until he relocated to Nashville. While playing the bars on Lower Broadway, he got frequent requests for Whitley, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Lynch essentially studied up on Whitley and got an education.

“That emotion, just to portray that in a recording, is what I’ve learned from Keith,” says Lynch. “When you get behind the microphone in the booth, you don’t just sing a song. You’ve got to put yourself in the position of the character of the song, and that’s what I’ve learned from Mr. Whitley. He did that. Probably because he lived it, more than anything.”

Whitley was in the thick of things during his lifetime. He got a leg up on his career in the 1970s when he joined Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, which also included a young Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs made his mainstream country debut in 1981, three years before Whitley first charted on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. Whitley convinced bluegrass mandolin player Gene Johnson to move to Nashville in 1985, and Johnson subsequently provided the distinctive high harmonies on a run of hits by Diamond Rio. And in 1986, Whitley married Lorrie Morgan, whose first top 10 single, “Dear Me,” was in its fifth chart week at the time of Whitley’s death. Their son, Jesse Keith Whitley, is staging a 25th-anniversary homecoming concert on May 9 in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, the home of his father’s birth.

While the late singer’s influence is felt, there’s some debate about whether his musical approach would be widely embraced moving forward. Bentley speculates that Whitley would be doing bluegrass were he alive today.

Producer Mark Bright (Carrie Underwood, Swon Brothers) believes, reluctantly, that the revealing spaciousness of Whitley’s material is out of synch with the density of modern country recordings.

“I think there’s talent possibly out there that would rival the great Keith Whitley, although I’ve never heard it,” says Bright. “But is the playing field level enough for that to happen? My answer would be, I don’t think it is. I wish that I did.”

On the other hand, Music Row made a similar assessment in 1985, when The New York Times ran a front-page story saying country music was “dead.” Within a year, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam had their first hits, leading the New Traditionalist movement. Whitley, who had been making more contemporary music in the mid-1980s, purposely returned to his country core at that time, and it was those latter-day records that made the biggest impact on his fan base, including Nichols, who was moved by “the lonesomeness of his voice.”

“He was like a father to me, and he didn’t know it,” says Nichols. “A lot of times growing up, when I was by myself or having a hard time, I would turn to country music and just play and sing, and he was one of the guys that I would sing along with most.”

“I wish Keith could have known what kind of impact he was having,” says Fundis reflectively. “It could have changed things for him, because he had a confidence problem. With all the success that he had, he talked in interviews about his drinking and how it would get in the way. He’d get right up to something really good happening, and he’d get drunk. He said, ‘From the time I was a little kid, people told me I was great and I just never really believed it.’ ”

Others did. And he’s still remembered some 25 years later, even if one has to dig a little deeper to find that influence.