Keith Whitley met the creator on May 9, 1989 because of alcohol poisoning at his home in Nashville. It might be weird thinking what could’ve happened to him, especially when you look at his career. He achieved what many search for a lifetime and found nothing in the end.
His first solo “A Hard Act To Follow” was recorded in 1984 and by the time of his death five years later. He was becoming one of the biggest artists in the country music, he amazingly charted 19 songs on the US country charts in his short time of making music. Then seven more after his death and during his lifetime, he had twelve. Not only that, he also charted five no. 1 singles.
Whitley’s astounding ability to tug at your heartstrings without sounding exploitative of your feelings made him one of country’s most sincere artists. His songs like “When You Say Nothing At All” and “Don’t Close Your Eyes” have been slow-dance staples since their release, with the latter being named “No. 1 County Song” by Billboard. He could’ve accomplish so much more. Imagine what could’ve happened if he didn’t die at a young age?
Even though Whitley was known for singing country ballad, he actually started with bluegrass. When he was still a teenager, he met Ricky Skaggs and immediately they hit it off. He and Skaggs played songs together until one day, Ralph Stanley stumbled upon them when Stanley was entertaining the crowd after a late show.
Stanley was amazed by Whitley and Skaggs, he asked the two if they would like to be a part of his band. They both joined and soon, Whitley took over the singing duties. He was in his early 20’s during that time.
Nine years after, Whitley made a name for himself in the bluegrass, he entered country music by moving to Nashville and getting a contract with RCA Records. He gained the trust of his label peers during the release of his second album “L.A. To Miami.” With his confidentiality at the helm of his own music, he remained steadfast in releasing introspective and emotional songs.
Unfortunately, Whitley had fallen into alcoholism. He learned to drink at an early age. Truth be told, he almost died a few times before he gained his fame in singing because of alcoholism. There was a time when he was a passenger in a deadly car crash involving alcoholism and reckless driving near his hometown. There was also another time, he took a plunge off a cliff and broke his collarbone.
On the 9th of May, 1989, Whitley called his mother and saw his brother-in-law Lane Palmer. Palmer said that they drank coffee and he made a plan to golf that day; and Whitley had planned to write songs featuring his wife for an album. Palmer left Whitley at 8:30 a.m. He returned an hour later to find Whitley in his bed, dead because of alcohol poisoning. His blood alcohol level was .47 which was nearly five times the legal limit in Tennessee at that time.
Keith Whitley managed to blend sensitivity and honesty with certain the right amount of machismo. He really never stooped trends or tried to reaffirm his celebrity status with silly ditties, he just released music that spoke to him.
If he hadn’t left us too soon, we believe that Whitley would still be a force in the scene someday with his classic sound in a vein just like George Strait and Allan Jackson but that’s not how the story goes, instead we ask “what could’ve been?”
It is important to think back, not with sadness, but admiration and respect. Whitley’s demons got the best of him, but he left a profound musical legacy.