Story of "When You Say Nothing At All” by Keith Whitley 1

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Keith Whitley Photo by Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A Hit for Keith Whitley

When Keith Whitley released his “L. A. To Miami” album, he could have kicked off his career with a couple of No. 1 records. However, George Strait notched a chart-topping single with Dean Dillon’s Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her.” Not only that, Randy Travis did the same with “On The Other Hand, written by Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet.

Keith Whitley had recorded both of those tunes for the album. He had the first chance of issuing singles on them. However, he chose not to.

His songwriting buddies Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet jokingly told Keith Whitley that the next time they sent him a song, he’d better release it as a single quickly before someone else beat him to it. A couple of years later, the two scribes delivered “When You Say Nothing At All” to Keith Whitley. Now, at long last, Whitley had one more opportunity to record a Schlitz/Overstreet tune. This time he wasn’t going to let this one get away.

Story of "When You Say Nothing At All” by Keith Whitley 2

A Song That Came Out of Nothing 

“When You Say Nothing At All “came about rather haphazardly. Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet were at a writing session in their downtown Nashville office one afternoon trying to develop song ideas.  However, the two men were having difficulty. Instead of calling it a day and starting fresh the next morning, the two men stubbornly decided to stay at the office until they came up with something.

Don and Paul were strumming their guitars and saying whatever popped into their heads. They hoped that it would trigger an idea. One of them uttered a line about “when you say nothing at all.” They both stopped, looked at each other and realized that they had finally landed a great title. So now the song had to be written, but amazingly that didn’t turn out to be much of a problem. Usually, after a basic idea comes together, the song falls into place rather quickly. This was a common occurrence among many great songwriters.

The guys devised a storyline around the old adage that actions speak louder than words and that sometimes a person can “hear” a lot more by listening carefully with your eyes rather than your ears. With “When You Say Nothing At All,” Schlitz and Overstreet came across a fresh, unique way of expressing that idea. It was a perfect love ballad that had the word “hit” written all over it. The guys instantly knew that the right artist to deliver the goods was their longtime friend Keith Whitley. They were very proud of his heartfelt performance.

“When You Say Nothing At All” debuted on Billboard’s country singles chart on September 17, 1988, and in its fifteenth charted week, it reached No. 1 on December 24th.