The Case For Keith Whitley
His tenure was tragically cut short, but his impact was immense. Everyone who enjoys country music and even many who don’t; have heard at least one Keith Whitley song. He is a legend, and an icon, instantly recognized by his deep, warm, baritone voice.
He deserves to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
There are several artists who belong in the Country Music Hall of Fame that haven’t made it yet, but none are an easier choice in my opinion than Keith Whitley.
Whitley got an early start in country music. At fifteen years old he befriended a then-unknown Ricky Skaggs, and they played a few little festivals and bars together.
One evening, country and bluegrass legend, Ralph Stanley; was late to one of his shows. He had a flat tire and arrived at a club in Ft. Gay, West Virginia, only to hear what he thought was a jukebox playing his music. Turns out it was Whitley and Skaggs.
The two were scooped up to join Stanley’s band; Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Whitley sang lead and played guitar. Stanley has been quoted as saying Whitley was the greatest singer he ever worked with. The performance below showcases a 23 year-old Whitley singing with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Keith Whitley is introduced at about 14:35 in the video.
All throughout the 70s Whitley was lead singer for Stanley, and also performed with J.D. Crowe & The New South. He quickly became more and more known around the bluegrass circles as one of the best singers around, and in 1983 he moved to Nashville to prove his worth.
It didn’t take long for Whitley to find a home at RCA Records. Within a year, in 1984 he had put out his first EP; A Hard Act To Follow. It wasn’t received the best by critics, but he was still just figuring out his sound.
He would follow up the EP with an amazing album titled; L.A. To Miami. His first real, mainstream success came from this project. “Miami, My Amy” was the second single released from L.A. To Miami and became the first top 20 hit for Whitley. He followed it up with a hot streak of the final three singles from that album, all hitting top 10.
His second, and unfortunately last full-length album; Don’t Close Your Eyes, was the biggest by far, and shows just how much momentum he had going at the time of his tragic early death.
He was alive for the release of every single from this album. The latter three singles were all number one hits on the country charts, and are still his most impactful to this day.
“Don’t Close Your Eyes”, “When You Say Nothing At All”, and “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” were those latter three. Every. Single. One. Went number one. Every. Single. One. Are still played by millions to this day. These three songs are three of the greatest country songs of the era. They were quite possibly the best string of three singles, ever released in the genre, in a row like that.
“Don’t Close Your Eyes” was also the number one country song of the year in 1988.
Then — while at the absolute peak of his young career; tragedy struck. On May 9th, 1989, Keith Whitley was found unconscious by a friend, and was rushed to a hospital via ambulance. He was pronounced dead, from alcohol poisoning.
Just before his death he had wrapped up work on what would have been his fourth album, and it was released by RCA three months afterwards in August. Titled; I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, it would give him two more number one hits, and a number three hit, with the title track, “It Ain’t Nothin’” and “I’m Over You”, respectively.
Several more posthumous albums would be released; mostly just compilation albums, but two more actual new albums released as well. Wherever You Are Tonight, and Sad Songs and Waltzes.
One of the most notable of the compilation albums did actually add a couple new, unheard songs. Kentucky Bluebird included his number two hit duet with Earl Thomas Conley titled; “Brotherly Love.”
Now that you know a little bit of the history, I’m going to get into why Keith Whitley belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
First of all, if you’ve been looking at the links I’ve provided to the songs; take a look at the comments. They’re full of people calling him the best country singer of all time, despite the small sample size we were left with. People love Keith Whitley. He put out just two full-length albums while he was alive, and people still — 33 years later, remember his music and the impact it had on them.
It’s not a huge stretch to imagine if had he lived a longer life, he would be in conversations with the likes of George Strait, and Alan Jackson (both of whom are in the Country Music Hall of Fame already).
This brings me to the reason that I suspect Whitley has not been inducted yet — his length of career. I do believe this is the reason, but I don’t believe it is a valid reason. Just recently, Ray Charles was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ray Charles absolutely deserved his induction, however; he was only a part-time country singer, and was most known for his stylings in R&B and Jazz. I think that because of this, Whitley should not be held back, just because of the limited time the world allowed him to be a country artist.
Whitley also had more number one country hits than several of the other members, such as the aforementioned Ray Charles, and Jimmy Dean. Number ones are by no measure the only stat that matters, but it is an interesting one to bring up for Whitley’s case.
Another big reason is the obvious impact he had on the genre. His time was short lived, but Whitley helped pioneer the new wave of neo-traditional country that was finding it’s footing in the late 80s. Many big name artists have listed Whitley as an influence, such as Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Alison Krauss, whose rendition of “When You Say Nothing At All” was a massive hit for her. Waylon Jennings loved Keith Whitley and is even credited as saying “that was the greatest country singer ever” on the day he died.
The Country Music Hall of Fame themselves know how important Keith Whitley was to the genre, as they even had an exhibition on him from 2019 to 2020.
Rumors say he’s been on the ballots for a couple years now, so here’s hoping 2022 is the year Keith Whitley gets the credit he so rightly deserves.