25 years ago today, country music saw one of its brightest stars burn out far too early. Keith Whitley was one of the finest singers to ever grace the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and the airwaves of country radio. Keith was a champion of traditional country music and bluegrass. He helped mix the sounds of yesterday with the current trends of the late 80's to create a sound that had across the board appeal. Sadly, as often the case, Keith brought some of those sad old drinking songs to life one too many times. Today, Keep It Country Kids remembers the great Keith Whitley.
On a personal level, I feel a connection to Keith Whitley. Keith grew up in Sandy Hook, Kentucky. This small blink and you'll miss it town is also where my great grand-parents grew up before they moved up north. I've been to the town to visit my great-grandparents second home there. Knowing that he is from the same tiny town as my blood makes me feel a special appreciation for him. If someone from that mountain town can hit it big, anyone can. It's the American dream. Keith earned his stripes playing with the bluegrass superstar Ralph Stanley. He also joined J.D. Crowe's band The New South. That bluegrass upbringing made Keith versatile as a writer and performer, as he included bluegrass influences on his country music. Keith struggled at first when he came to Nashville, but he soon hit big with "Miami My Amy", his first top 20 hit. He then went on a tear like few have ever seen in Nashville. "I'm No Stranger To The Rain, "When You Say Nothing At All", and "Don't Close Your Eyes" went number one consecutively. Keith's traditional country was sweeping the nation, and he was on top of the world. He married fellow country star Lorrie Morgan and a son named Jesse Keith Whitley. "Don't Close Your Eyes" made the Keep It Country Kids 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time.
Unfortunately, Keith struggled with alcoholism. He died of alcohol poisoning on May 9, 1989. He was 34 years old. He had a few more hit singles on the charts after he passed away, including "Brotherly Love" with Earl Thomas Conley. Lorrie Morgan arranged a tribute album in the early 90's, and Allison Krauss took "When You Say Nothing At All" back up near the top of the charts with her fantastic rendition.
Keith Whitley helped usher in the "neo-traditionalist" movement of the early 1990's that saw Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Mark Chesnutt, Marty Stuart, Vince gill, and Garth Brooks all become bona-fide superstars. It's safe to say that without Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, and George Strait there to pave the way, some of the best of one of the golden eras of country music would have gone unheard. Keith Whitley serves as both a happy remembrance of the best country music has to offer, and a heartbreaking warning of the devils that come with fortune and fame. We may never know how big Keith Whitley could have been, and where country music would be today had he lived to see his 60's and 70's. But, we can say for certain that country music is better off because Keith was here. That's a legacy worth having. He truly was "no stranger to the rain", but Keith still managed to put a smile on our faces despite his inner pain. Thank you for the music, Keith Whitley.
"When You Say Nothing At All"
"Don't Close Your Eyes"
"I'm No Stranger To The Rain"
"Miami, My Amy"
"Tell Lorrie I Love Her"