Millie asked if we could remember her favorite from years ago, Keith Whitley. Of course. Millie says it still makes her tear up thinking about his - in the end, tragic story. You're not alone. Seldom has a country star evoked as much emotion as he did in his short life and early death. Keith Whitley died at 34 of an alcohol overdose. But his gift to us beyond the music, was being the blueprint for a new kind of country star.
You May Not Know - This Was His Song Before Any Other Version
Whitley was seemingly right on time when he hit the charts in 1985. He was a traditionalist when the movement was in the embryonic stage as we were leaving Urban Cowboy behind. Whitley's background was deep country and bluegrass, and he grew up playing music in his native Kentucky with Ricky Skaggs, as both of them were discovered by Ralph Stanley of Bluegrass fame. They both joined Stanley's band at a very young age. Skaggs went on to his incredibly successful solo career, breaking through in 1980, and Whitley would follow a few years later.
Another Number One
Whitley was handsome, he was young, he had this big warm voice that was perfect for gut wrenching, deeply emotive, country songs that found the exact center of your heart. He excited new fans with his newfound star power, and older fans loved him as he reminded them of the stars of their youth. He blasted upon the scene with great songs like, Miami My Amy, Homecoming '63, and Hard Livin'. It didn't take long for fans to fall in love with him, or country singer Lorrie Morgan who did as well, and the two were married in 1986. Whitley was poised for a huge, long run with so many great songs, it seemed we couldn't get them on the air fast enough.
One Of The Best Country Songs Of All Time
In 1988, the Don't Close Your Eyes album came out and his career was shoved into high gear, as it is one of the best country albums of the past 40 years. It was the zenith of his young career with 3 big number ones, When You Say Nothing At All, (Written by Paul Overstreet, one of the best wongwriters of that era) I'm No Stranger To The Rain (Grammy Nominated and CMA Winner Song Of The Year 1989) and Don't Close Your Eyes, (Written by Bob McDill, one of the greatest Country songwriters ever, writing 31 #1 songs) which was named the #1 Country Song of 1988.
He was rising to the top at a break neck pace. Keep in mind, this is before Garth, Clint, Tim, Shania, Alan and Brooks And Dunn. This was the infancy of the neotraditionalists along with George, Dwight and Randy. They were changing the direction of country music, and setting the stage nicely for the new giants that were on the way. Then on May 9, 1989 as he was getting ready to play a round of golf, Whitley was found unresponsive at his home, and died shortly after. Keith Whitley's alcohol demons had proven to be too much.
In all my years in Country Music and Country Radio, it is still one of the saddest days I can remember. I was doing the morning show at KLIK in Jefferson City, Missouri and our listeners were devastated, as was the Nashville community. Listeners called for days, that became weeks, wanting to hear his music. The sheer sadness was something that doesn't happen that often. This young man died, leaving a young wife, and a young child with the world at his feet seemingly. And just like that, he was gone.
After His Passing - Very Popular Song
Many songs would be released after his death, it seemed like he was still with us. There was very good chart success, and he had a real presence in the format and on the radio. There were solo songs, and a duet with Earl Thomas Conley, as well as compilation and tribute albums. His voice lived on long after his passing. But the format lost a real rising star, someone that was pointing us in a new and exciting direction. He was a big part of what happened in the early 1990's even though he never saw them. He influenced many, and had tons of fans. And the amount of YouTube Views of his music are huge.
Duet With Earl Thomas Conley
From my seat from behind the mic, I said on the air many times long before he died that I'm No Stranger To The Rain is one of the best country songs of all time and I stand by that 32 years later. It was written by a tremendous songwriter named Sonny Curtis (Who also wrote the iconic theme song for the Mary Tyler Moore Show). The song became autobiographical for Whitley and you know that when you hear it. It was Whitley at his absolute best, and that album, as much as any album, set the stage for the avalanche of new stars that came in 1989 and ran through the 1990's. And even though he was not there to see it, he along with George Strait, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam had a whole lot to do with the onslaught of great music and artists that followed. His fans believed every word and note he sang, and that's where he lived.
Keith Whitley - If you don't know him, get to know him. We miss him still.
Done Too Soon.