History, News

Keith Whitley’s legacy lives on 30 years later

Thirty years ago today, country music lost the legendary Keith Whitley. He was just 33 years old, but he left his footprint on the hearts of many in country music, even to this day. Born on July 1, 1955 in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, Keith Whitley had 19 singles that charted on the Billboard Country Music Charts. Many songs are still covered by others, including “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “When You Say Nothing At All,” and his first top 20 song, “Miami, My Amy.”

Keith Whitley performed in a music contest in 1969 and met Ricky Skaggs at the time. They became friends and were later discovered by bluegrass music legend, Ralph Stanley. Ralph was running late to a show and heard Ricky and Keith performing, sounding very much like the Stanley Brothers. They would join Ralph’s band and Keith Whitley became lead singer in 1974.

Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, and Keith Whitley performing. (From Ricky Skaggs website)
Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley performing together. (Photo from Country Music Hall of Fame)
Keith Whitley with bluegrass music legend, Ralph Stanley.

KET filmed a special in 1977 that features Keith Whitley performing with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. At the same time, Keith would play with J.D. Crowe & The New South, a hot bluegrass act from central Kentucky. On April 18, 1979, JD Crowe and the New South played at the Kosei Nenkin Sho Hall in Tokyo, Japan. Rounder Records released the recordings on LP, called Live in Japan, in 1982, Rounder 0159, and re-issued them on CD in 1997.

Keith Whitley with JD Crowe from Bluegrass Today
Keith Whitley with JD Crowe from Bluegrass Today

In 1983, Keith Whitley decided to leave the bluegrass festival circuits and pursue a career in country music.

On March 8, 1984, Keith Whitley would record “Turn Me to Love,” which would later appear on the movie soundtrack for “Switchback.” Twenty days later on March 28, he would record “Ten Feet Away” and “Miami, My Amy.”  The later wouldn’t be released until later on, but he did get to perform it on the 1986 CMA Awards, as well as on the Grand Ole Opry.

Later in 1984 on August 29th, Keith would sign a recording contract with RCA. Then on October 6th, he joined fellow Kentuckians, The Judds, to make their “Hee Haw” tv show debut. Roy Acuff appeared, as did Lee Greenwood, who sang “God Bless the U.S.A.”  Below is Keith Whitley performing “That Stuff” on his Hee Haw debut.

Keith Whitley recorded and did a video duet with Earl Thomas Conley for the hit song, “Brotherly Love.”  The song would be nominated for an Academy of Country Music Video of the Year.  To this date, it is one of the most popular duets in country music.

In 1986, fate would have it on April 12th as Keith Whitley performed on the Grand Ole Opry the same night as Lorrie Morgan. Their first date would be eating Wendy’s hamburgers in Centennial Park in Nashville. They would marry on November 22, 1986 in Nashville’s Calvary Methodist Church. A reception would follow at the Opryland Hotel with a honeymoon in Florida.

Just prior to the wedding, Keith recorded “Hard Livin’” and “Homecoming ’63” in June. Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan welcome a baby boy, Jesse Keith Whitley, on June 15, 1987.

Keith Whitley is one of the inductees into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Photo by Les Leverett.

On May 31, 1988, RCA releases Keith Whitley’s album, “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” On August 13th, he collects his first number 1 hit on the Billboard Country Single chart with “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” A few months later on Christmas Eve, he earned another number 1 song with “When You Say Nothing at All.” He would follow that up with a number 1 on April 8, 1989, with “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”

Not even a month after “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” made it to number one, he would play his last concert at the Armadillo Ballroom in Brazoria, Texas on May 6, 1989.

Sadly on May 9, 1989, Keith Whitley passed away from alcohol poisoning at his home. His funeral would be held three days later with Ricky Skaggs performing. Pallbearers included Ricky Skaggs, Garth Fundis, Ralph Emery, and David Frizzell. Keith Whitley is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.

Keith Whitley’s gravestone in Nashville. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.

One month after his passing, RCA released the single “I Wonder Do You Think of Me.” Then on July 25, 1989, he earned a gold album for “Don’t Close Your Eyes” by the RIAA. Days later, RCA released the album, “I Wonder Do You Think of Me,” where it reached number one on September 9th.

At the Country Music Association Awards in October 1989, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” would go on to win Single of the Year for Keith and record producer Garth Fundis. Two days later, the Country Music Hall of Fame Walkway of Stars added Keith Whitley alongside fellow Kentuckian Patty Loveless, as well as Vern Gosdin, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Billy Joe Royal, Irlene Mandrell, Lacy J. Dalton, Ralph Sloan, Curly Fox & Texas Ruby and The Desert Rose Band.

Even with his passing, Keith Whitley continued to garner hits. On January 13, 1990, he hit number one on Billboard Country Chart for “It Ain’t Nothing.” Lorrie Morgan added her vocals to a previously-recorded Keith Whitley track, “‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose,” a day before the one-year anniversary of his death in 1990. It would go on to win a CMA Vocal Event of the Year and a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Collaboration. In November 1990, Keith Whitley’s “Greatest Hits” album received gold certification. It would get a platinum certification on June 24, 1993.

In 1991, RCA released the soundtrack for “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” that included Keith Whitley. On September 27, 1994, BNA released “Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album,” that included Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, Joe Diffie, Mark Chesnutt, Lorrie Morgan, Alison Krauss, Tracy Lawrence, and Ricky Skaggs. It was revealed that Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain” was partially inspired by Keith Whitley as the lyrics make reference to the hit “I’m No Stranger To The Rain.”

On May 21, 1996, RCA releases “Super Hits” that is certified gold in March 2003. On June 24, 1999, Bill Rains revealed a bronze statue of Keith Whitley in Nashville, but it was later placed in Memorial Park in Sandy Hook, Kentucky.

Keith Whitley’s bronze statue stands tall in Sandy Hook, Kentucky. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.

On April 7, 2011, Keith Whitley was posthumously inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame with Steve Wariner, Patty Loveless, John Michael Montgomery, The Goins Brothers, Larnell Harris, and Molly O’Day. Lorrie Morgan and Jesse Keith Whitley are on hand to accept the honor.  This wouldn’t be the first time that Keith and Patty were featured in an event.  Previously, they had a concert in Hazard that was scheduled, but with Keith’s passing it never happened.

Kentucky Music Hall of Fame 2011 Class. Melvin Goins, Loretta Morgan & Jesse Keith Whitley (for Keith Whitley), Larnelle Harris, John Michael Montgomery, Patty Loveless, and Steve Wariner. Photo by Jessica Blankenship.

On May 3, 2019, the Country Music Hall of Fame opened a special exhibit on Keith Whitley’s legacy.  Items featured in Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley include stage wear, instruments and personal artifacts from Keith’s childhood and music career. It will stay open through April 5, 2020.  Some highlights include a Sony TC-540 reel-to-reel tape recorder Elmer Whitley used to record the Lonesome Mountain Boys, a bluegrass group featuring his sons Dwight and Keith; a Dangerous Threads bolero jacket Whitley wore at one of his final public performances, in March 1989; and a 1980 C.W. Parsons & Co. acoustic guitar Whitley used extensively.

Guests view the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s new exhibit “Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley” at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on April 30, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum)

On May 9, Keith Whitley is the subject of a tribute concert 30 years after his death at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. The lineup includes Lorrie Morgan, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Mark Chesnutt, Mark Wills, Tracy Lawrence, Joe Diffie and Darryl Worley.

Ironically, for someone to have so much influence on many in country music and to have a special exhibit and concert, Keith Whitley is not a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Many were hoping that 2019 would be that year due to the multitude of historical events that happened in the last 30 years. Hopefully this overlooked nomination will be taken serious to become a member in the 2020 inductee class.

Keith Whitley Discography

Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs – Second Generation Bluegrass – 1971
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys featuring Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs – Tribute to the Stanley Brothers – 1971
My Home Ain’t In the Hall of Fame (with J.D. Crowe & The New South) – 1978
Somewhere Between (with J.D. Crowe & The New South) – 1981
Live in Japan (with J.D. Crowe & The New South) – 1979 (Japan) & 1987 (US)
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys featuring Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs – Bluegrass – 1983
Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys featuring Keith Whitley & Ricky Skaggs – Gospel Echoes of the Stanley Brothers – 1983
A Hard Act to Follow EP – Released October 1, 1984
L.A. to Miami: Released October 28, 1985 and reached #26 on Billboard Country Charts
Don’t Close Your Eyes: Released May 31, 1988 and reached #8 on Billboard Country Charts and RIAA Certified Gold
I Wonder Do You Think of Me: Released August 1, 1989 and reached #2 on Billboard Country Charts and RIAA Certified Gold
Greatest Hits: Released August 7, 1990 and reached #5 on Billboard Country Charts and RIAA Certified Platinum
Kentucky Bluebird: Released September 10, 1991 and reached #45 Billboard Country Charts
The Best of Keith Whitley: Released June 22, 1993
Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album: Released September 27, 1994 and reached #29 Billboard Country Charts
Wherever You Are Tonight: Released October 24, 1995
Super Hits: Released May 21, 1996 and reached #51 Billboard Country Charts and RIAA Certified Gold
The Essential Keith Whitley: Released June 18, 1996
Keith Whitley Remembered: The Encore Collection: Released April 14, 1998
Sad Songs & Waltzes: Released September 12, 2000
RCA Country Legends: Released March 5, 2002
Platinum and Gold Collection: Released September 9, 2003
16 Biggest Hits: Released April 11, 2006
Country: Released March 5, 2013 and reached #49 on Billboard Country Charts
Ralph Stanley And The Clinch Mountain Boys Featuring Ricky Skaggs & Keith Whitley – The Complete Jessup Recordings Plus! – 2016