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John Travolta in cowboy boots. Ralph Lauren designed-bolo ties. Hollywood fame. Country music was in a strange and unusual place in the early ’80s, thanks to the smash movie Urban Cowboy that found the genre suddenly smack in the middle of pop consciousness, and instant national adoration. It was on the runways and the red carpets, the radio and magazine covers. Country music, and country style, was everywhere — even Dolly Parton had crossed over with her Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream.” And, as is the Nashville way, not everyone was thrilled. Someone needed to come and shake the genre back to a connection with its traditional core.
Still in his 20s when he rolled into Nashville in 1983, Keith Whitley was a bluegrass singer from Ashland, Kentucky, with thick, wavy blond hair and a voice that had once stopped the legend Ralph Stanley in his tracks — so striking, in fact, that he recruited Whitley to perform as a member of his band, The Clinch Mountain Boys, after catching him and Ricky Skaggs playing at a club in West Virginia when his car broke down on the road. Whitley was a promising guitarist, but his voice was the kind that resonated from the holler to the dancehall, the mountains to the fields, that rare, lonesome sound. They toured together through the ’70s, with Whitley also joining J.D. Crowe & the New South for a stint and growing a reputation as one of the finest bluegrass interpreters around.
Whitley had dreams bigger than bluegrass, though — well, he had bigger dreams for where he could take a traditional country approach. He fantasized about superstardom and tour buses with his name emblazoned on the side growing up in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, things that weren’t exactly commonplace for a career spent singing alongside a banjo, fiddle and pedal steel. And Nashville, once it heard those pristine vocals, had bigger plans for him, too: He was quickly signed to a label deal with RCA Records, ready to help shepherd a neotraditional movement into town.
“At a time when country music is being pulled in more directions than a wealthy widower at a small town church social,” wrote J. Garland Pembroke for the Journal-Constitution, “Here comes Keith Whitley singing country music in its most traditional, unadulterated form.”
His first release and subsequent singles, A Hard Act to Follow, didn’t quite live up to commercial expectations, or Whitley’s own visions of what he was capable of. His classic twang emanated thoroughly, but it was often dimmed in favor of low-risk sonic propositions, and nothing broke through, especially in terms of all-important Country Radio. Whitley had a taste for self-destruction, too, which made it even harder for him to weather the disappointment of not being an instant hit. He’d been peddled the myth that all the successful country artists had to court danger and alcohol in order to be inspired, and so did he: From losing his brother in a motorcycle accident as a teen to nearly breaking his own neck racing cars, he embraced recklessness and risks. But it was alcohol that proved to be his most enduring vice, which he resorted to not only out of addiction but in a desire to “live out my songs.” When A Hard Act to Follow didn’t perform as planned, the bottle came in handy to soothe his lingering disappointment.
Things looked up a little, though, with his next release — and first full-length record — L.A. to Miami. The album’s core single, “Miami, My Amy,” was a hit, and Whitley’s confidence as an artist began to grow. But something about the song and the success still irked him. “It gave me a hit,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “But it wasn’t really what I was about — and I think deep down inside I knew it, even if I didn’t want to face it.”
Whitley was ready, though, to face that person inside of him soon enough and help connect the roots of country music to its swiftly evolving future. Whitley was making new music in 1987, but he didn’t like the direction things were headed in the studio. A new marriage to country star Lorrie Morgan helped him reconnect with the confidence that brought him to Nashville in the first place, and especially what made him stand out in a sea of pop-ified country music. Even more important, their new baby motivated him to get sober. Shortly before 15 songs of a third release were due to hit stores, he told RCA Nashville head Joe Galante that he needed to shelve what they had created almost completely, in favor of finding something that rang much more true to who he really was. To his surprise, the label was relieved. They’d been waiting for him to figure out how to step in fully to who they knew, and he knew, he was.
“I just didn’t feel like I had an album that was really me,” Whitley told UPI at the time. “I didn’t have the great album that I needed. So I went to see Joe Galanate about it right before the album was scheduled to come out. I told him didn’t really think I had the album I needed. He breathed a sigh of relief. They were waiting for me to come to that decision.”
Part of that process for Whitley was to co-produce and write more songs than ever. Alongside Garth Fundis, they took to the studio in between Whitley’s rigorous touring schedule and kept things loose and immediate in order to capture a live feeling in the songs — Whitley had always been known as a much stronger act in concert than on his recordings, and they were both fed up with how it never came through on tape. Eight of the nine songs that made the LP were cut with a live vocal at the Sound Emporium in Nashville.
“This is basically a live album,” Whitley said at the time, in an interview with The Tennessean. “Apparently, I sing better that way. And Garth made it all sound so real. You can hear people playing those instruments. You can hear slides on those acoustic guitars. That’s part of music: It’s real. I tell you, those pickers had made me so fired up, goddang it was like a letdown when the sessions were over with.”
Whitley had always been an emotive singer, but the first single, “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” went even deeper into rarefied emotional territory — it was tender and twangy, strong and self-assured in its vulnerability, never needing to hang on to faint ideas of masculine country tropes. “It’s not uncommon for me to get so wrapped up in a song that I cry several times when I sing them,” Whitley told the Associated Press. “That’s the difference between my music and some of the other folks.” And it was. His songs were so emotional that fans would often approach him after shows, tears in their eyes, confessing that they thought he was singing and speaking directly to them.
For his recording of “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” a one-time hit for his idol Lefty Frizzell, Whitley even visited Frizzell’s grave and wept at his final resting place before adding a new verse to the song — everything he did, he felt deep and urgently in his bones, and his renewed confidence in himself not only as a performer but also a producer helped the songs settle into what made him stand out, not run with the pack. Other choices, like the eventual hit “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” and “Honky Tonk Heart,” spared nothing in terms of keeping traditional country instrumentation firmly in place while still sinking deep into Whitley’s natural sense of melody. “There’s nothing slick, just a plain old honky-tonker’s broods and boasts,” wrote a reviewer in the Raleigh News and Observer, “pleasures and pains laid bare with confidence and flair.”
“Don’t Close Your Eyes” came out as a single two months before the album of the same title, and it became Whitley’s first No. 1 hit, and, eventually, was deemed Billboard’s country single of the year, a memory Holly Gleason asked Whitley to recount for the Los Angeles Times. “We were on our way back home from a road trip, and we were just outside Nashville when the phone on the bus rang,” Whitley remembered. “When I heard the news, I just started hollering. We knew we had a chance … But it’s still so hard to believe.”
And it wasn’t the last hit he would have — the album ushered in rave reviews, nonstop radio play and a line of subsequent No. 1s in its wake. The next single, “When You Say Nothing at All,” catapulted him even further. He spent the rest of 1988 and the first few months of 1989 touring under his newfound mega stardom, but the demands of fame refused to let up. Despite finding his sobriety not long before the release of Don’t Close Your Eyes, the pull of the disease was too strong. On May 6, Whitley played his final show at the Armadillo Ballroom in Brazoria, Texas. Three days later, he died from alcohol poisoning at the age of only 33, just three weeks shy of seeing his lifelong dream of being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry come true.
The legacy of Whitley and Don’t Close Your Eyes didn’t end there, though, by a longshot. A founding father of the neotraditional movement in country music, he’s counted as an influence by everyone from Alan Jackson to Garth Brooks and Chris Young, ushering in an era where meeting the past and the future in a beautiful crest became a desirable wave to ride, not swim away from. Brooks even lobbied for Whitley to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor he finally achieved in May of 2022, the superstar claiming that his career might not even exist if Whitley never discovered music as a six-year-old in rural Kentucky.
“He was proud of his music,” Lorrie Morgan said about her late husband at a concert heralding the 30th anniversary of his death. “He was just an average guy. He was a little boy. He used to wear his shoes on the wrong feet. He was one of us.”