It remains one of the darkest days in Nashville’s music history, up there with Patsy Cline‘s plane crash and Hank Williams‘ mysterious substance-related passing.
On May 9, 1989, Keith Whitley‘s voice was silenced after he consumed a staggering volume of alcohol. It happened just four weeks after he reached No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart for the third time with “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” a seemingly autobiographical title that suggested he had conquered some very dark forces. In truth, the battle was not yet over, though he hid it well in a public career that was, at the time, quickly ascending.
“He was as comfortable as anyone could be on that stage every night,” says producer Garth Fundis (Don Williams, Trisha Yearwood). “It was the other 23 hours of the day that he struggled with.”
Thirty years later, the Nashville community is making as big a deal of the anniversary as it ever has. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened an exhibit, “Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley,” on May 3. And Lorrie Morgan, his widow, has organized a May 9 tribute concert at the museum’s CMA Theater that includes Mark Chesnutt, Mark Wills, Darryl Worley and Garth Brooks, who has called more than once for Whitley to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Brooks is just one modern-day country artist who considers Whitley a guiding light. That list also includes Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Joe Nichols, Dylan Scott, Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio‘s Gene Johnson and Chris Young, who owns one of Whitley’s guitars. Carson Chamberlain, Whitley’s road manager and steel guitarist, eventually wrote hits for Jackson and George Strait, and produced Easton Corbin and Billy Currington, extending Whitley’s impact.
“When you look at it and go, ‘These people had epic careers that were influenced by that guy,’ it’s just a tragedy that he didn’t get to make more music,” says Young. “It’s also a testament to how special he was.”
Traditional country singers and the tragic side of their stories fascinated Whitley — he was known to visit the grave of Lefty Frizzell — and his vocal delivery was, perhaps, a more controlled version of George Jones‘ style: He could be pitchy, but he conveyed a sad song with an enormous amount of emotion.
“He’d just kind of get lost in a song,” recalls Fundis.
That’s a big reason for the continued interest. Whitley’s signature songs — particularly “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “When You Say Nothing at All,” “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” — all featured some level of melancholy and/or vulnerability that made him one of country’s key voices during the New Traditionalist era in the late 1980s.
“He had the simplicity of production, and man, his voice was just selling [the story] so great,” says Ricky Skaggs. “It wasn’t Urban Cowboy. It was stone-cold country.”
Skaggs knows of which he speaks. The two became fast friends on the Kentucky bluegrass circuit as teenagers in the late 1960s. Ralph Stanley hired them for his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, and they learned lead vocals and harmonies in that setting, which emphasized tone and melodic faithfulness over vocal embellishments that were typically delivered with great subtlety. Both landed at major Nashville labels in the early 1980s: Skaggs skyrocketed after his first Epic single in 1981, while Whitley’s first EP for RCA, 1984’s Hard Act to Follow, led to a slower climb.
Whitley himself was, by contrast, in a bit of a hurry. When his first RCA contract was ready for signing, he showed up at the label anxious for a pen. RCA president Joe Galante cautioned him to get an attorney and even supplied a few names and numbers, promising the deal would still be in place once Whitley went through the legalities. A week later, Whitley arrived at the office with signed copies, and Galante is convinced he never bothered with outside counsel.
“He didn’t care,” says Galante. “He had a company that was going to go work his records, and that’s what he dreamed about. There was never a discussion about money. I don’t think he ever looked at the damn thing, but he just couldn’t wait to get in the studio and make music.”
Four of Whitley’s songs peaked between No. 10 and No. 15 from 1985-1987, mixing honky-tonk tendencies with contemporary-sounding productions (“Homecoming ’63” even featured a tenor sax solo), though the wistful “Miami, My Amy” has best stood the test of time.
“My dad, who can’t even play the radio, used to play ‘Miami, My Amy’ all the time,” recalls Warner Music Nashville artist Cale Dodds, who turned 1 the same month Whitley died. “That’s the first song that I remember hearing a true word play, or word twist, with: ‘Miami, My Amy.’ That was a huge moment for me as a young songwriter.”
When Whitley looked for a new producer for his second RCA album, he auditioned three candidates, asking each of them to bring a song they thought would be apropos for his voice. Fundis called Welk Music Group, assuming songwriter Bob McDill would have some uncut gem lying around. Welk professional manager Doyle Brown offered “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” and that match won Fundis the gig. They recorded the first eight sides in a scant two days just before Thanksgiving 1987, and Whitley’s plaintive renditions came almost entirely from his live performances with the band at the Sound Emporium.
“I was just floored by what he was able to do with his voice,” says Fundis. “A lot of that was just pure soul and natural talent, but Keith learned a lot in those bluegrass days about being able to turn a trill or to do whatever he wanted to do with his voice.”
Country Music Hall of Fame vp museum services Brenda Colladay referred to that voice as “the gold standard” during an invitation-only preview of the museum’s exhibit. It’s a collection of physical objects that were essential to Whitley’s story, including a reel-to-reel tape deck that his dad employed to record performances for WLKS Liberty, Ky.; a 1970 photo with Skaggs in matching Pepto-Bismol-pink button-down shirts; and McDill’s original “Don’t Close Your Eyes” manuscript, complete with a series of potential rhymes — “ago,” “flow,” “go” and “know” — scribbled in the left margin on the yellow legal paper. It’s an effective tribute, but for anyone who heard those songs in their heyday — or heard the tragic news of his death reported on the radio 30 years ago — it’s also a stark reminder of human frailty and contradiction.
“He was born to sing,” said Morgan at the exhibit preview. “That’s what he loved to do most — that and eat hot chicken and have friends around and tell stories. Keith was a lover of life who unfortunately had some bad demons that he could not control.”
It is, of course, a rite of passage for country singers to not only face their demons, but to address them in their music. Numerous Hall of Fame members — including Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard — did that before Whitley. Now some younger artists speak of him in the same breath as the heroes who already have a plaque on the wall in the museum’s rotunda. The exhibit may be a stepping stone to finally seeing Whitley enshrined there as well.
“He certainly has influenced a couple of generations since we made these records,” argues Fundis. “Now that Ricky’s in, it kind of makes sense. Let’s do this. The guy deserves it.”