It is that time of year when we start anticipating the names who will be added to the famously selective Country Music Hall of Fame. The Hall has been notoriously careful about preserving an elite class of members, to the point there is now a significant backlog of artists, writers, and musicians who probably should already have been inducted by now. I am not writing this to assert that Keith Whitley deserves to be in before say, Alan Jackson, whose exclusion has become almost ridiculous, or to discount others worthy of the distinction. This is why I mentioned the backlog, as Keith Whitley is one of several names who have earned their place here and have yet to receive it. But I do consider it a travesty that Keith Whitley’s motorcycle, pictured here, has made it into the Hall before Whitley himself. So perhaps because of the seeming uncertainty among many that Whitley deserves this honor at all, or perhaps because I want to explain why I signed the petition started by his fans to have him inducted, or perhaps simply because Keith Whitley’s music is one of the biggest reasons I fell in love with country music and still carry a passion for it to this day, I feel especially compelled to reach out and explain why Keith Whitley deserves a place alongside his peers and his motorcycle in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Keith Whitley grew up in Kentucky and first made a name for himself performing in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. He was fifteen at the time, and he and fellow singer Ricky Skaggs became widely respected in the world of bluegrass. In 1983, he moved to Nashville and later signed with RCA Records. At first, he made more contemporary country music. His biggest chart successes during this time included the singles “Ten Feet Away” and “Miami, My Amy.” He also married fellow country singer Lorrie Morgan in 1986.
Whitley asked to have his second full-length studio album shelved, feeling that the music wasn’t really his style. Back then, the concept of labels actually listening to artists and giving them creative control was not so foreign, and the result was the 1988 release Don’t Close Your Eyes. This was a more traditional-sounding album, similar to the music being put out by Randy Travis and George Strait. IN fact, Whitley had previously recorded both “ON the Other Hand,” later a hit single by Travis, and “Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her,” which became a #1 hit for Strait, on his 1985 album L.a. to Miami. Whitley’s vision for Don’t Close Your Eyes proved successful, as the album produced three #1 singles in 1988 and 1989. These included the title track, “When You Say Nothing at All,” and “I’m no Stranger to the Rain,” all of which have become timeless songs. As a fan, I can say they are three of my favorite country songs of all time. “I’m NO stranger to the Rain” won him his only CMA Award and a Grammy nomination. It was expected that Whitley was on his way to becoming a country superstar.
One of the biggest reasons for the success and popularity of Keith Whitley was the raw emotion he conveyed in his songs. His last producer stated,
There was no Pro Tools at that point. Pitch accuracy and things like that were important. But someone who could express the emotion and really own the song, so to speak, that counted for a lot. And Keith certainly knew how to do that.
Many modern singers have identified Whitley as the one who taught them to bring out this emotion in their songs, not just to sing, but to tell the story of a character.
But the emotional power in Keith Whitley’s voice came at a high price. despite his musical success, Whitley’s life was troubled. He could express pain so easily in a song because he lived it out. His alcoholism was an ongoing battle, made harder by depression and by the fact he had lost both his brother and father by 1987. The country music community was well aware of his struggles with alcohol and were pulling for him; Keith made the issues quite public, and “I’m NO stranger to the Rain” was written about it. He seemed to be trying to deal with it, but on May 9, 1989, at the age of thirty-four, Whitley died in his home of what was ruled to be alcohol poisoning. His blood alcohol level was stated to be .47, the equivalent of 20 1-ounce shots of 100-proof whiskey. And thus, tragically, Keith Whitley’s career had ended just as it had begun.
So the question is, after only a handful of hit singles, does Keith Whitley deserve country music’s highest honor? As I stated above, there is no doubt that there are many others also deserving of this recognition, and certainly there are names whose inclusion is long overdue. The problem that arises with Keith Whitley is whether or not his career was impactful and long-lasting enough to warrant him such a distinction. Would he really have been a superstar, or does his legacy elevate his status? Does a career as short as Keith’s merit equal respect and consideration with that of someone like the aforementioned Alan Jackson, who is well-liked by the industry and has been churning out quality and commercially successful music for two decades? What sets Keith Whitley apart from the countless others who charted a small string of hits and then faded into irrelevancy?
The answer is Keith Whitley’s legacy and influence. He continued to produce top 5 singles after his death, and several compilation albums were released. Some of his previously unreleased material would come out in subsequent years, and a tribute album was made in his honor in 1994. Alison Krauss’s version of “When You Say Nothing at all” was released as a single from the tribute album; it became one of her biggest hits and has since been covered by other artists. Whitley is considered to have helped open the door for the class of ’89 which included Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and now Hall of Fame member Garth brooks. Garth initially tried to turn down his induction in 2012 because he felt others, including Whitley, deserved to be admitted before him. Tim McGraw, inspired by Keith Whitley’s music and passion, famously arrived in Nashville the day Whitley died and has also cited him as an inspiration for dealing with alcohol issues of his own. Vince Gill began writing “Go Rest High on That Mountain” after Keith’s death, and although Gill finished it several years later following his brother’s passing, the song remains a tribute to Whitley as well; this is embodied in the line, “You weren’t afraid to face the devil, you were no stranger to the rain.” The song won the 1995 Grammy for Best Country Song and has become a standard at funerals and arguably Vince Gill’s signature song. Ironically, Gill said of “Go Rest High on that Mountain” in his own 2009 Hall of Fame induction, “Turns out, if anybody remembers any of my songs, it’ll be this one.”
Keith Whitley is still influencing artists today. Chris Young paid $15,000 for Whitley’s guitar and says Keith influenced his singing. Part of Young’s decision to sign with RCA was that Keith Whitley had been on that label. It’s a shame Chris Young doesn’t take his Whitley-like voice and lend it to less boring songs, but I digress. Other artists, including Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley, are said to play the singer’s music regularly. Perhaps the most impressive and telling sign of the impact of Keith Whitley came in 2014 when then seventeen-year-old Jake Worthington, a contestant on NBC’s The Voice, auditioned with “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” Whitley had died years before Jake Worthington was ever born. The performance became a standout of the season and a hallmark moment for Worthington.
It can be argued that Keith Whitley didn’t do enough in his career to be considered for the Hall of Fame. But few can make the impact he did over such a short time. If he had been able to continue making records, he might be a living legend like George Strait. Or maybe he would have faded into obscurity like so many other artists before and after him. But the fact is, none of this happened, and much like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline before him, his tragic death created a legend and a legacy around him. But it takes more than legacy to explain the kind of lasting impact he had and continues to have on country music. It takes a voice like his that could express such raw emotion, to make songs that inspire people twenty-eight years later. It takes an authenticity and vulnerability rarely seen in music. It takes something real and raw that used to be the foundation of country music, the very thing that is disappearing from the airwaves today. It takes a connection so strong that it can make the kind of impression in a few albums that most artists struggle to make in twenty. Keith Whitley lived out the pain in his songs, and it’s that honesty, that part of himself left behind in his music, which transcends the years, influences generations of artists, and has earned him a place among the most elite in country music.
The Petition to Induct Keith Whitley into the Country Music Hall of Fame
In 2015, a group of dedicated Keith Whitley fans drafted a petition for the singer’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The petition has gained 7,600 signatures so far and states, among other things, that Keith Whitley’s love for and influence of country music should be recognized by the Hall.