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Keith Whitley

Keith Whitley
Keith Whitley performing at the Country Music Fan Fair in June 1988 in Nashville, Tennessee at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds.
Background information
Birth name Jackie Keith Whitley
Born (1955-07-01)July 1, 1955
Ashland, Kentucky, United States
Origin Sandy Hook, Kentucky, United States
Died May 9, 1989(1989-05-09) (aged 33)
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
Genres Country
Occupation(s) Singer
Instruments Guitar, vocals
Years active 1970–1989
Labels RCA (RCA Nashville)
Associated acts Clinch Mountain Boys
Lorrie Morgan

Jackie Keith Whitley[1] (July 1, 1955[1][2] – May 9, 1989), known professionally as Keith Whitley, was an American country music singer. During his short career, Whitley charted 19 singles on the Billboard country charts.

Born in Don't Close Your Eyes, the title song, "When You Say Nothing at All" and "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" were number-one hits. Several years of alcoholism severely deteriorated his health and he died in 1989 at the age of 33. His later two singles, "I Wonder Do You Think of Me" and "It Ain't Nothin'", were released after his death. Whitley continues to influence an entire generation of singers and songwriters.


  • Early life 1
  • Musical career 2
  • Alcoholism and death 3
    • Death controversy 3.1
  • Posthumous career 4
  • Discography 5
    • Studio albums 5.1
    • Compilation albums 5.2
    • Extended plays 5.3
    • Singles 5.4
    • Music videos 5.5
  • References 6
  • Notes 7

Early life

Whitley was born to Faye (editor of The Elliott County News) and Elmer Whitley (an electrician) in Ashland, Kentucky, but was raised 46 miles away in Sandy Hook, and attended Sandy Hook High School.[3][4] He had two brothers, Randy and Dwight, and a sister, Mary.[5][6] 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-feet cliff into a frozen river, escaping with only a broken collar bone.[7]

Musical career

In 1969 he performed in a musical contest in Ezel, Kentucky, with brother Dwight on five-string banjo. Ricky Skaggs was also in the contest. Skaggs and Whitley hit it off right away and quickly befriended each other.[8]

Fifteen-year-old Whitley and 16-year-old Skaggs were discovered in Ft. Gay, West Virginia by Ralph Stanley who was 45 minutes late for a show due to a flat tire. Stanley opened the door of the club and heard what he thought were the Stanley Brothers playing on a jukebox. However it was Whitley and Skaggs, who "sounded just like me and Carter in the early days". The two soon joined Ralph's band. Whitley became lead singer for Stanley in 1974. Whitley also played with J.D. Crowe & the New South in the mid-1970s.[7] 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.[7]

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 "

During his tour to promote L.A. to Miami, he met and began a romantic relationship with country singer 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 one 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.

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

Alcoholism and death

Whitley was a longtime alcoholic, who began drinking early in his career at bluegrass gigs, long before he was legally allowed to drink alcohol. Many times, he had attempted to overcome his alcoholism, but failed; and his pre-existing depression made it more challenging for him to quit. Whitley preferred to drink alone, making it difficult for anyone to detect that he had a problem. According to Lorrie Morgan, she tried to conceal all alcoholic beverages from him at the home they shared, even going to the extent of binding their legs together before going to bed to make it impossible for Whitley to get up in the middle of the night to consume a drink without her knowledge - only to discover that he would drink things such as perfume and nail polish remover to get intoxicated.

Whitley had lost his brother Randy in an October 1983 motorcycle accident, and his father Elmer in 1987.[3][5]

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 and they were planning a day of golf and having lunch, after which Whitley had planned to start writing songs for Lorrie Morgan and himself to record when she returned from her concert tour. Palmer departed at approximately 8:30 a.m.,[9] informing Whitley to be ready to leave within an hour. Upon returning, Palmer found Whitley face down on his bed, fully clothed.

The official cause of death was determined to be acute ethanolism (alcohol poisoning),[4] and Davidson County Medical Examiner Charles Harlan stated that his blood alcohol level was .47 (the equivalent of 20 1-ounce shots of 100-proof whiskey[10] and almost five times the then Tennessee level of .10 legal intoxication limit, and nearly six times the current .08 legal limit to drive).[11][12][12][13][14] Whitley was 33 years of age.[1][2]

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 Nashville, Tennessee.

Death controversy

It has long been speculated that Whitley's death may not have been directly caused by his recklessness or alcoholism, but that he may have been a victim of premeditated misconduct. In 2009, forensic pathologist and then-chief medical examiner Charles W. Harlan stood trial for several cases of forensic fraud which led to the misdiagnoses of several deceased patients, and possibly the conviction of innocent people under suspicion of murder. Subsequently, the man who originally laid claim that Whitley's death was solely by alcohol poisoning has been relieved of his license to practice pathology.[15][16] Whitley's death certificate and autopsy results had once been sealed from public access, but have since been made public record.

Posthumous career

Despite Whitley's death, 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 August 1, 1989. The album produced two more No. 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 Whitley'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 album produced hits for Whitley as well, including a duet with Earl Thomas Conley, named "Brotherly Love," which peaked at No. 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 Daron Norwood, and "A Voice Still Rings True", a multi-artist song.[17] Alison Krauss's rendition of "When You Say Nothing at All" was released as a single from the album, reaching number 3 on the country charts in 1995.

In 1995, the album Wherever You Are Tonight was released, produced by Lorrie Morgan, featuring restored demos of 1986-1988, with crisper 1990s recording techniques and a full orchestra. The album 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".

In 2004, songwriter Jeff Swope began writing a film treatment for a biopic concerning Whitley's life and death that was shelved in 2006. On April 13, 2010, he announced that pre-production was set to begin again, pending investors.[18]

In the last 10 years, several film projects depicting Whitley's life were slated. One idea was a film version of the George Vescey-Lorrie Morgan-penned "Forever Yours, Faithfully". While Morgan's book was a benchmark in piecing together Whitley's final moments, perhaps the most research went into a project titled "Kentucky Bluebird", which was to star writer/actor/director David Keith. This project has been in development hell for several years, and was halted in late 2006 also, after difficulties with casting and funding.


Studio albums

Title Album details Peak chart positions Certifications
(sales threshold)
US Country US CAN Country
L.A. to Miami 26
Don't Close Your Eyes
  • Release date: May 31, 1988
  • Label: RCA Nashville
8 121 10
  • US: Gold
I Wonder Do You Think of Me
  • Release date: August 1, 1989
  • Label: RCA Nashville
2 115
  • US: Gold
Kentucky Bluebird
  • Release date: September 10, 1991
  • Label: RCA Nashville
45 17
Wherever You Are Tonight
"—" denotes releases that did not chart

Compilation albums

Title Album details Peak chart
(sales threshold)
US Country US
Greatest Hits
  • Release date: August 7, 1990
  • Label: RCA Nashville
5 67
  • US: Platinum
The Very Best of Keith Whitley
  • Release date: June 22, 1993
  • Label: RCA Nashville
Super Hits
  • Release date: May 21, 1996
  • Label: RCA Nashville
  • US: Gold
The Essential Keith Whitley
  • Release date: June 18, 1996
  • Label: RCA Nashville
Keith Whitley Remembered…
The Encore Collection
Sad Songs and Waltzes
RCA Country Legends
  • Release date: March 5, 2002
  • Label: RCA Nashville
Platinum and Gold Collection
  • Release date: September 9, 2003
  • Label: RCA Nashville
16 Biggest Hits
Keith Whitley: Collections
  • Release date: May 8, 2006
  • Label: Legacy Recordings
Country: Keith Whitley 49
"—" denotes releases that did not chart

Extended plays

Title Album details
A Hard Act to Follow
  • Release date: October 1, 1984
  • Label: RCA Nashville


Year Single Peak chart
US Country CAN Country
1984 "Turn Me to Love" 59 57 A Hard Act to Follow
"A Hard Act to Follow" 76
1985 "I've Got the Heart for You" 57 L.A. to Miami
"Miami, My Amy" 14 38
1986 "Ten Feet Away" 9 16
"Homecoming '63" 9 25
1987 "Hard Livin'" 10
"Would These Arms Be in Your Way" 36 Don't Close Your Eyes
"Some Old Side Road" 16 32
1988 "Don't Close Your Eyes" 1 2
"When You Say Nothing at All" 1 1
1989 "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" 1 1
"I Wonder Do You Think of Me" 1 1 I Wonder Do You Think of Me
"It Ain't Nothin'" 1 1
1990 "I'm Over You" 3 3
"Lorrie Morgan) 13 13 Greatest Hits
1991 "Brotherly Love" (with Earl Thomas Conley) 2 6 Kentucky Bluebird
1992 "Somebody's Doin' Me Right" 15 12
1995 "Wherever You Are Tonight" 75 Wherever You Are Tonight
2000 "Sad Songs and Waltzes" Sad Songs and Waltzes
"—" denotes releases that did not chart

Music videos

Year Video Director
1986 "Homecoming '63" Arnold Levine
1987 "Hard Livin'" George Bloom[19]
1988 "Don't Close Your Eyes" Michael McClary
"Honky Tonk Heart" (unreleased)
"Flying Colors" (unreleased)
"When You Say Nothing at All" Stephen Buck
1989 "I'm No Stranger to the Rain"
"It Ain't Nothin'" Ethan Russell
1991 "Brotherly Love" (with Earl Thomas Conley) Jack Cole


  • Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. - Keith Whitley: Biography. - Allmusic.
  • Skinker, Chris (1998). - "Keith Whitley". - The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music. - First Edition. - Paul Kingsbury, editor. - New York: Oxford University Press. - pp. 583–584. ISBN 978-0-19-511671-7


  1. ^ a b c Whitburn, Joel (2006). - The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits. - Second Edition. - New York: Billboard Books. - p.382. - ISBN 978-0-8230-8291-9.
  2. ^ a b Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon (2000). - Country Music: The Encyclopedia. - New York: St. Martin's Press. - p.533. - ISBN 978-0-312-26487-1.
    —Carlin, Richard (2003). - Country Music: A Biographical Dictionary. - New York: Routledge - p.427. - ISBN 978-0-415-93802-0.
    —Larkin, Colin (1995). - The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. - New York: Stockton Press - P.4462. - ISBN 978-0-85112-662-3.
    —Stanton, Scott (2003). - The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. - New York: Pocket Books. - p.395. - ISBN 978-0-7434-6330-0.
    —Hicks, Jack. - "Singer Keith Whitley's Memory Alive Through Songs, Love in Home Town". - The Kentucky Post. - September 25, 1991.
    —"Country Music Star Keith Whitley Dead at 33". - Lexington Herald-Leader. - May 10, 1989.
    —Keith Whitley at Find a Grave
    —Hurst, Jack. - "Whitley's Last Days". - Chicago Tribune. - May 14, 1989.
    —"Alcohol Kills Country Singer Keith Whitley". - United Press International. - (c/o The San Francisco Chronicle). - May 10, 1989.
  3. ^ a b Hicks, Jack. - "Singer Keith Whitley's Memory Alive Through Songs, Love in Home Town". - The Kentucky Post. - September 25, 1991.
  4. ^ a b "Country Music Star Keith Whitley Dead at 33". - Lexington Herald-Leader. - May 10, 1989.
  5. ^ a b Lockwood, Frank E. - "Bikers, Sandy Hook Pay Tribute to Favorite Son". - Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) - Saturday, June 27, 1998.
  6. ^ Lockwood, Frank E. - "Singing in Rain". - Lexington Herald-Leader (KY) - Saturday, June 28, 1999.
  7. ^ a b c Associated Press - "Whitley Just Getting Started Despite 18-Year Music Career". - Salina Journal (KS) - Thursday, October 27, 1988.
  8. ^ Rowe, Norman. - Album Echoes Country Classics". - Richmond Times-Dispatch. - April 20, 1986
  9. ^ Jinkins, Shirley. - "A country music love story of death, drinking and devotion". - Fort Worth Star-Telegram. - October 14, 1997.
  10. ^ "Alcohol Cuts Short a promising career". - Associated Press. - (c/o Salina Journal). - August 10, 1989.
  11. ^ Edwards, Joe. - "Keith Whitley discovered dead - Alcohol overdose cause of death". - Austin American-Statesman. - May 10, 1989.
  12. ^ a b "Country Singer Keith Whitley, 34". - Associated Press. - (c/o Chicago Tribune). - May 10, 1989.
  13. ^ Hurst, Jack. - "Whitley's Last Days". - Chicago Tribune. - May 14, 1989.
  14. ^ Green, Barbara. - "Whitley Fans Hate 'To See a Good Man Go To Waste". - Richmond Times-Dispatch. - May 17, 1989.
  15. ^ Final Order - Charles W. Harlan
  16. ^ State finds 18 instances of sloppy work by Harlan
  17. ^ Hurst, Jack (11 August 1994). "Crowning Touch 'Red Hot + Country' Album Delayed To Include Crosby, Stills And Nash".  
  18. ^ Mirrors, The Keith Whitley Story - WordPress, April 13, 2010
  19. ^ " I Wonder Do You Think of Me [VHS]: Keith Whitley: Movies & TV". Retrieved 2012-01-15. 
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