Op-Ed: How Keith Whitley’s Short Career and Early Death Changed Country Music
“The whole deal with my music has been the emotional quality,” Whitley said in 1988. “Songs I do have to strike an emotional chord the first time I sing them. It’s not so uncommon for me to get so wrapped up in a song that I cry several times when I sing them. That’s the difference between my music and some of the other folks.”
Thirty years after Whitley's sudden death at age 33 from alcohol poisoning, a lifetime of passion and pain still comes through stereo speakers loud and clear whenever fans and artists revisit one of country music’s all-time-great vocal stylists.
Throughout his upbringing in Sandy Hook, Ky., Whitley marveled at the songs of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones and other innovative artists. This love became a family affair: Brother Dwight was Whitley’s first bandmate, and their father Elmer taped their performances with the Lonesome Mountain Boys for a local radio show.
As a bluegrass prodigy, Whitley sparked a lifelong friendship with fellow young Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs. The teenage friends landed their first major gig together as members of Ralph Stanley’s band. Whitley’s foray in bluegrass also included a stint with J.D. Crowe & the New South.
Whitley moved to Nashville in 1983 to chase country music stardom. After the 1984 EP A Hard Act to Follow failed to leave its mark, he delivered with one of the most impactful debut albums of the decade, 1985’s L.A. to Miami. The other full-length issued in Whitley’s lifetime, 1988’s Don’t Close Your Eyes, cemented his spot in mainstream country with an incomparable run of three straight No. 1 singles: the title track, “When You Say Nothing at All” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”
There’s no need to question whether Whitley reached superstardom, as he cleared that bar easily by early 1989. Yet since he was a radio star, and such like-minded artists as Clint Black were on the rise and capable of helping Whitley and Randy Travis represent traditional country music to the masses, there’s no telling how lucrative the ‘90s could have been for someone who truly left this world on top of his profession.
It’s a tantalizing question because, over the past 50-plus years, few tragedies have impacted young stars. Between 1953 and 1964, country music unexpectedly lost Hank Williams (age 29), Johnny Horton (35), Patsy Cline (30) and Jim Reeves (40). Since then, however, most deaths within the genre have involved older artists, usually after prolonged health struggles, or names that’d faded from the spotlight. Perhaps only Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry's 2017 death at age 50 came out of nowhere and claimed a performer positioned for future success.
WATCH: Dillon Carmichael Covers Keith Whitley's "Don't Close Your Eyes"
Stories from Whitley's widow and fellow country star Lorrie Morgan and others paint him as a kind-hearted man who met few strangers and made fewer enemies, making his death feel even more tragic.
"When you met Keith, you knew you had met someone who was absolutely in love with life,” Morgan said at the opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s new exhibit Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley. “He was born to sing, and that's what he loved to do most. He was a lover of life who unfortunately had some bad demons that he could not control.”
Another quote from Morgan, included in the Hall of Fame’s April 2 announcement of the exhibit, proves that at least one more career milestone awaited Whitley in 1989: “Before Keith’s death, he was three weeks away from his lifelong dream of being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a surprise that he never knew about.”
Whitley's Hall of Fame exhibit runs until April 5, 2020, and supplements the story told by Whitley’s recordings with objects from a life devoted to music.
“Whitley’s haunting and emotional voice represented the resurgence of the traditional sound on mainstream country radio,” says Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in a press release. “His bluegrass roots and love for honky-tonk music led to his unique, drawling style that continues to inspire and influence today’s country music artists. We are honored to examine the indelible impact of Whitley’s brief but significant career.”
Just like Williams, Frizzell, Jones, Stanley and others, Whitley’s influence can be heard down Lower Broadway and all the way to Music Row. The singer’s passing directly inspired at least two important happenings from the past 30 years: Tim McGraw's 1989 move to Nashville and Vince Gill's spiritually charged 1995 single “Go Rest High on that Mountain.” Since then, such big names as Blake Shelton have cited him as an influence, and songwriters including Erin Enderlin still marvel at the storytelling depth hiding within his relatively simplistic hits.
“He always picked those songs that were right in that traditional country vein that just really gets me excited,” Enderlin says. “He really painted a picture, and his songs sometimes were really deceptively simple. That’s become one of my favorite things about writing. You look at a song like "When You Say Nothing at All" and you listen to it, and you’re like, ‘Well, man, I should’ve been able to write that.’ That should’ve been right there in front of your face, but it’s not.
"That’s the amazing thing about crafting songs," Enderlin adds. "When you pick just the right words to capture that emotion, it makes it seem effortless.”
Rarely one to claim songwriter credits, Whitley picked the right songs by Bob McDill, Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran, Paul Overstreet, Don Schlitz and other top-notch writers. In the process, he identified timeless stories that made him cry, inspired others pick up a pen or guitar and guaranteed a spot in that Nashville pantheon alongside many of his childhood favorites.
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