(July 1, 1954 – May 9, 1989)
Keith Whitley was an American country music singer. Whitley’s brief career in mainstream country music lasted from 1984 until his death in 1989, but he continues to influence an entire generation of singers and songwriters. He charted 19 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’.”
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 Elliot County area since the 1840s.
As a teenager in Sandy Hook, Whitley 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 whose driver attempted to round a curve at 120 mph. The car wrecked, killing his friend and almost breaking Whitley’s neck. In another incident, he drove his car off a 120 foot cliff into a frozen river, escaping with only a broken collar bone.
In 1969 he performed in a musical contest in Ezel, Kentucky, with brother Dwight on five-string banjo. Future country-music star Ricky Skaggs, was also in the contest. Skaggs and Whitley hit it off right away and became fast friends.
As teenagers, Whitley (15) and Skaggs (16) were discovered by Ralph Stanley while they were singing 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 and 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 1983 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 Whitley before Randy Travis released the song as a single and when Whitley’s version wasn’t released as a single, Travis released his in 1986, as did George Straight with “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her”.
During his tour to promote L.A. to Miami, he met and began a romantic relationship with country singer Lorrie Morgan. The pair was married in November 1986, and they had their only child, a son, Jesse Keith Whitley, in June 1987. Whitley 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 15 songs could be shelved. He asked if he could assert himself more with 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 standard “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” and the song became a huge hit at Whitley’s concerts. The first three singles from 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 of 1988. Shortly thereafter, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” also earned Whitley his first and only Country Music Association award as a solo artist.
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 as far as binding their legs together before going to bed so as to make it impossible for Whitley to wake up in the middle of the night to consume a drink without her knowledge – only to find out that he would drink things such as perfume and nail polish remover to get intoxicated.
On the morning of May 9, 1989, after a weekend of drinking and partying, Whitley awoke and spoke with his mother briefly on the phone. He was then visited by his brother-in-law Lane Palmer, and the two had coffee; after which Whitley had planned to start writing songs for he and Lorrie Morgan to record when she returned from her tour. Palmer departed at approximately 8:30 a.m., informing Whitley to be ready to leave within an hour. Upon returning, Palmer found Whitley face down on his bed, fully clothed. Keith Whitley was dead at age 34.
The day after his death, Music Row was lined with black ribbons in memory of Whitley. He is buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery outside of Nashville, Tennessee.