Unlikely as it may seem, 30 years have passed since Keith Whitley left us following a career that began with a gawky, bespectacled youth recreating with Ricky Skaggs the Stanley Brothers’ bluegrass music harmonies of the Columbia and Mercury years, and blossomed into that of a major country music star of his day with leonine profile and heartachingly-sincere vocals.
On May 3, 2019, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is opening an exhibition that “tells the story of his tragically brief career and outsized influence on country music.”
Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, said in a statement .. Whitley’s haunting and emotional voice represented the resurgence of the traditional sound on mainstream country radio. His bluegrass roots and love for honky-tonk music led to his unique, drawling style that continues to inspire and influence today’s country music artists. We are honored to examine the indelible impact of Whitley’s brief but significant career.
On July 1, 1955, Whitley was born in Ashland, in north-eastern Kentucky, and raised in Sandy Hook, a tiny Appalachian coal-mining town about 50 miles away. He made his radio debut at the age of eight, performing Hank Williams’ You Win Again on The Buddy Starcher Show on WCHS in Charleston, West Virginia. At the age of 13 Whitley (lead guitar and lead vocals) formed a band, the Lonesome Mountain Boys, with his older brother Dwight (banjo and low baritone harmony), friend and future Country Music Hall of Fame member Ricky Skaggs (fiddle, mandolin, lead vocals and high tenor harmony), and Skaggs’ father Hobart (on rhythm guitar). The band’s garage recordings were featured weekly on a West Liberty, Kentucky, radio station.
At about the same time Whitley and Skaggs were spotted by Ralph Stanley in a Ft. Gay, West Virginia, club and, subsequently, were invited by him to join his Clinch Mountain Boys.
Initially, he had two duet LPs with Skaggs, albeit both featuring the Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys throughout. One was released by Jalyn Records, the other by Rebel Records. Later, in 1975, Whitley re-joined Ralph Stanley taking on the role of lead vocalist and guitarist. Overall, Whitley was featured on a handful of albums while working for Stanley. These include the classic Cry from the Cross, Old Country Churchand Sing Gospel Echoes of the Stanley Brothers.
In this 1977 KET Bluegrass special features Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys with a self-assured Keith Whitley singing lead on I’ll Just Go Away, I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, Nobody’s Love Is Like Mine, Will You Miss Me and Catch a Train and Ride.
In 1973 Whitley worked with Jimmy Gaudreau, Carl Jackson, and Bill Rawlings in the short-lived The Country Store. The band’s 1973 performance at Bill Grant’s Hugo, Oklahoma, bluegrass festival was recorded, and an album put out on the Ridge Runner label.
By 1978 Whitley was a member of J D Crowe’s New South with whom he helped with the recordings of three LPs My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame, Live in Japan (aka Live in Tokyo in Japan) and Somewhere Between. Both studio albums have significant country music elements; the second of these very much so with Crowe playing electric guitar, and with steel guitar, piano, and drums also featured. It “introduced Whitley as a honky-tonk singer beyond compare” with his “unique sense of twang and timing,” so say the notes to Sad Songs and Waltzes, Rounder’s posthumous re-issue of Somewhere Between with new arrangements and production as well as five previously unreleased cuts.
The transition is evident in the song selection and performances even on Somewhere Between ….
In 1982 Whitley signed with the Nashville division of RCA to great acclaim from fans of traditional country music. After some initial unsatisfactory singles and minor hits, Miami, My Amy being among the best of this period, Whitley convinced RCA to scrap an entire album and allow him to produce his own work, a decision that led to his commercial breakthrough. Teaming with co-producer Garth Fundis, Whitley delivered a successful and critically lauded album, Don’t Close Your Eyes. Singles from the album included Whitley’s first #1 hits; Don’t Close Your Eyes, When You Say Nothing at All, and I’m No Stranger to the Rain, named the CMA Single of the Year in 1989.
His third studio album I Wonder Do You Think of Me certified Gold in reaching #2 and two #1 singles were released posthumously by RCA.
Items featured in the exhibition dubbed Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley include stage wear, significant instruments and personal artifacts representative of Whitley’s childhood and music career. Some highlights include:
A Sony TC-540 reel-to-reel tape recorder with detachable speakers, used by Elmer Whitley to record the Lonesome Mountain Boys, a bluegrass group featuring his sons Dwight and Keith (recordings were broadcast weekly on radio station WLKS)
A Dangerous Threads bolero jacket worn by Whitley at one of his final public performances in March 1989
A 1980 C.W. Parsons & Co. acoustic guitar with walnut finish used extensively by Whitley
Original draft of Country Music Hall of Fame member Don Schlitz’s handwritten lyrics to When You Say Nothing at All, a #1 hit for Whitley in 1988 (co-written with Paul Overstreet)
Whitley’s handwritten lyrics to Tell Me Something I Don’t Know and Wherever You Are Tonight (which appear on his posthumous, 1995 album Wherever You Are Tonight)
On the announcement of the exhibition, Whitley’s widow Lorrie Morgan said …“I cannot express what an honor it is for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to recognize the late, great Keith Whitley as such an important part of country music history. He was not only instrumental in giving me the confidence I needed as an artist, but through the years, he has given many other up-and-coming stars the confidence and true grit they have acquired by loving and listening to the music of Keith Whitley. This exhibit is not just Keith’s life in music, but also depicts his love for country as well as bluegrass music. Keith always felt inadequate of the recognition he deserved. Keith was the most humble, generous, and truly the most talented man I have ever known. Before Keith’s death, he was three weeks away from his lifelong dream of being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a surprise that he never knew about. Speaking for myself, his children Morgan, son-in-law Justin, his son Jesse Keith, daughter-in-law Kristen, his grandchildren Preston, Parker, and Tuff, his unborn granddaughter, and all of the Whitleys and all of the Morgans, this is an honor we have longed to show the world. This exhibit is the life and times of Keith Whitley.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum tells the story of soulful singer Keith Whitley in its exhibition Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley. The exhibition opens on May 3, 2019 and runs through to April 5, 2020.
Keith Whitley passed away on May 9, 1989, at just 33 years of age.