Keith Whitley (1955–1989)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Country singer.

Keith Whitley, despite his untimely death, was a major influence on 1980s neo-traditionalist movement in main- stream country music. Born on July 1, 1955, in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, Jessie Keith Whitley made his first mark in country music at the age of eight with a guest appearance on the Buddy Starcher Show at WCHS-TV in Charleston, West Virginia. By 1969, Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, both teen- agers, formed a bluegrass duo performing Stanley Brothers material. This led to both boys’ obtaining jobs as sidemen in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys during the summers of 1970, 1971, and 1972. From 1972 to 1974, Whitley played with the bluegrass group New Tradition before rejoining the Clinch Mountain Boys in May 1974 as guitarist and lead vocalist. In 1978 he moved on to the progressive bluegrass group J. D. Crowe and the New South.

When Ricky Skaggs became a star of mainstream country music, Whitley followed him to Nashville and signed a contract with RCA Victor. After a slow start and only modest chart success in 1984 and 1985, his career accelerated rapidly when his singles—“Ten Feet Away,” “Homecoming ’63,” and “Hard Livin’”—reached the Billboard country top ten in 1986. That same year Whitley married Grand Ole Opry star Lorrie Morgan. In the summer of 1988, his single “Don’t Close Your Eyes” became the first of five consecutive number one hits. Unfortunately, the last two of these hits reached their peak only after Whitley’s death from alcohol abuse on May 9, 1989, at age thirty- three. “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” won the 1989 Single of the Year award from the Country Music Association, and the same organization voted the posthumously released duet (with Morgan) “Till a Tear Becomes a Rose” Vocal Event of the Year in 1990.

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Keith Whitley