Keith Whitley

Jesse Keith Whitley (, 1954- ??? , 1989), known professionally as Keith Whitley, was an American country music singer. Whitley's brief career in mainstream country music lasted from 1984 till his death in 1989, but he continues to influence an entire generation of singers and songwriters. He charted nineteen singles on the Billboard country charts, including five consecutive Number Ones: "Don't Close Your Eyes", "When You Say Nothing at All", "I'm No Stranger to the Rain", "I Wonder Do You Think of Me" and "It Ain't Nothin'" (the last two posthumously).

There is a Keith Whitley Tribute Band known as "Kentucky Bluebird". The group includes former Whitley sideman, Randy Hayes. Most recently, the group hosted and performed at The 1st Annual Keith Whitley Tribute Concert in Keiths' hometown of Sandy Hook, Kentucky on June 25, 2009.

Early life

Whitley was born to Faye (editor of The Elliott County News) and Elmer Whitley (an electrician) in Ashland, Kentucky, but grew up 46 miles away in Sandy Hook, and attended Sandy Hook High School. He had two brothers, Randy and Dwight, and a sister, Mary. The Whitley family has lived in the area since the 1840s.

As a teenager in Sandy Hook, he and his friends would pass the time drinking bootleg bourbon and racing their cars down mountain roads at dangerous speeds. Whitley was once in a car with a companion who attempted to round a curve at 120 mph. The car wrecked, killing his friend and almost breaking his neck. In another incident, he drove his car of a 120 foot cliff into a frozen river, escaping with only a broken collar bone.

Musical career

In 1969 he performed in a musical contest in Ezell, Kentucky, with brother Dwight on five-string banjo, and also in the contest was Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs and Keith hit it off right away and became fast friends.

15-year old Whitley, along with Ricky Skaggs, one year older, was discovered by Ralph Stanley when the two teenagers sang Stanley Brothers songs as an opening act for the Clinch Mountain Boys. The two soon joined Ralph's band. Whitley also played with J.D. Crowe & the New South in the mid-seventies. During this period, he established himself as one of the most versatile and talented lead singers in bluegrass. His singing was heavily influenced by Carter Stanley and Lefty Frizzell. He moved to Nashville in the early 1980's to pursue a country music career and soon signed a record deal with RCA Records. Whitley's first solo album, A Hard Act to Follow, was released in 1984, and featured a more mainstream country style. While Whitley was working hard to achieve his own style, the songs he produced were inconsistent. Critics regarded the album as too erratic. Whitley honed his sound within the next few years for his next album, L.A. to Miami.

L.A. to Miami, released in 1986 would give him his first Top 20 country hit single, "Miami, My Amy." The song was followed by three more hit songs: "Ten Feet Away," "Homecoming '63," and "Hard Livin." The album also included "On The Other Hand" and "Nobody In His Right Mind Would've Left Her." "On The Other Hand" was pitched to Keith before Randy Travis released the song as a single and when Keith's version wasn't released as a single, Randy released his in 1986, as did George Strait with "Nobody In His Right Mind Would've Left Her"

During his tour to promote L.A. to Miami, he met and started a romantic relationship with Lorrie Morgan, a fellow country singer. The pair were married in November, 1986, and they had their only child, a son, Jesse Keith Whitley, in June 1987. Keith also adopted Lorrie's daughter, Morgan, from her first marriage.

During the new recording sessions in 1987, Whitley started feeling that the songs he was doing were not up to his standards, so he approached RCA and asked if the project of fifteen songs could be shelved. He asked if he could have more of a say in the songs and production. The new album, titled Don't Close Your Eyes, was released in 1988, and the album sold extremely well. The album contained one of the many songs that Whitley had a hand in writing in his years at Tree Publishing, "It's All Coming Back To Me Now." Also on the album was a remake of Lefty Frizzell's classic song, "I Never Go Around Mirrors," and the song became a huge hit at Whitley's concerts. The first three singles off of the album -- "When You Say Nothing at All," "I'm No Stranger to the Rain," and the title cut -- all reached number 1 on Billboard Magazine's country charts during the fall of 1988 and the winter of 1989, with the title track "Don't Close Your Eyes" being ranked as Billboard's No. 1 Country song for the entire year of 1988. Shortly thereafter, "I'm No Stranger To The Rain" also earned Whitley his first and only Country Music Association award.

In early 1989, Keith approached Joe Galante with the intention of releasing I Never Go Around Mirrors as a radio single. Joe approved of the musical flexibility that Keith achieved with the song, however, he suggested that Keith record something new and more upbeat. The result was a song Keith had optioned for his previous album called I Wonder, Do You Think Of Me?, and was to result in his next album release.

He recorded "Tell Lorrie I Love Her" which he wrote for his wife before he died.

Alcoholism and death

Whitley was a longtime alcoholic, who started drinking early in his career at bluegrass gigs, long before he was legally allowed to drink alcohol. Many times he had tried to overcome his alcoholism, but failed. Whitley preferred to drink alone, making it difficult for anyone to detect that he had a problem. According to Lorrie Morgan, she tried to hide alcohol from him, even going so far as tying their legs together before going to bed, so that Whitley couldn't wake up in the middle of the night to take a drink without her knowing it - only to find out he would drink things such as perfume and nail polish to get intoxicated.

Whitley had lost both his father Elmer and his brother Randy (1983 motorcycle accident), in the five years preceding his death.

On the morning of , 1989, after a weekend of drinking and partying with friends, Whitley woke up and spoke with his mother, Faye, briefly on the phone. He was then visited by his brother-in-law, Lane Palmer, and the two had coffee and planned a day of golf, after which, Keith had planned to start writing songs for him and Lorrie to possibly record when she returned from her tour. His brother-in-law departed at approximately 8:30 a.m., telling Whitley to be ready within an hour. Upon returning, Palmer found Whitley found face down on his bed, fully clothed.

The cause of death was acute ethanolism (alcohol poisoning), and Davidson County medical examiner Charles Harlan stated that his blood alcohol level was .477 (the equivalent of 20 1-ounce shots of 100-proof whiskey and almost five times over the then Tennessee level of 0.1 legal intoxication limit, and nearly six times over the current .08 legal limit to drive), and contained ethyl alcohol. . Whitley was 34 years old.

The day after his death, Music Row was lined with black ribbons in memory of Whitley. He is buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.

Posthumous career

Although Whitley's voice was silenced, his influence on country music has persisted long after his death. At the time of his death, he had just finished work on his fourth and final studio album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me. The album was released three months after his death, on , 1989. The album produced two more #1 hits, with the title track and "It Ain't Nothin'." "I'm Over You" also saw the Top 5 in early 1990, reaching No. 3.

Two new songs were added to "Greatest Hits": The first, "Tell Lorrie I Love Her" was written and recorded at home by Whitley for Morgan, originally intended as a work tape for Whitley's friend Curtis 'Mr. Harmony' Young to sing at Whitley's wedding. The second was "'Til A Tear Becomes A Rose", a 1987 demo taken from Tree that originally featured harmony vocals by childhood friend Ricky Skaggs. Lorrie Morgan, with creative control and license to Whitley's namesake, recorded her voice alongside Keith's, and released it as a single, which rose to No. 13 and won them 1990's CMA award for Best Vocal Collaboration.

RCA also released a compilation of performance clips (from his days in the Ralph Stanley-Fronted Clinch Mountain Boys), interviews, and some previously unreleased material under the title "Kentucky Bluebird". The CD produced hits for Keith as well, including a duet with Earl Thomas Conley which rose to number #2 in late 1991.

In 1994, Whitley's widow Lorrie Morgan organized several of Whitley's friends in bluegrass and some of the big names in country at the time to record a tribute album to Whitley. The album included covers of Whitley's songs from artists such as Alan Jackson, Diamond Rio, and Ricky Skaggs. The album also included several previously unreleased tracks recorded by Whitley in 1987. One of the songs was a duet that Lorrie and Keith did in 1987 called "I Just Want You". The tribute album credited Whitley with another award for reaching more than 500,000 copies. However, the hit single to come from the tribute album was Alison Krauss & Union Station's rendition of "When You Say Nothing at All", which was a #3 hit for her that year.

In 1995, the CD "Wherever You Are Tonight" was released, produced by Lorrie Morgan, featuring cleaned-up demos of 1986-1988, with crisper 1990s recording techniques and a full orchestra. The CD and single of the same name both did very well on the Billboard and R&R charts and brought "Super Hits" and "The Essential Keith Whitley" in 1996. "The Essential" contained the remastered and long since unavailable LP and Whitley's debut, the 6-Track "A Hard Act to Follow", and a scrapped song from 1986's "LA to Miami", "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight".

Whitley's influence also has been acknowledged in songs like Cory Morrow's "Nashville Blues" (from the 1998 album The Man That I've Been), the chorus of which name-checks the musicians whose work Morrow admires, and includes the line, "And old Keith Whitley, he died too soon."

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Original Wikipedia article: Whitley