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100 Greatest Men: #52. Keith Whitley

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Some of the greatest artists in country music left the scene just as they reached staggering artistic heights, leaving fans to forever wonder what might have been.

Keith Whitley was born and raised in Kentucky, and was performing music from a very young age.  A prodigious talent, he was only fifteen years old when he met Ricky Skaggs while competing in a regional music contest.  The two became fast friends, and were soon performing on stage with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.

Whitley made two separate runs as a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys with Stanley, then performed in a group called New South, led by J.D Crowe.   After appearing on more than a dozen albums, first with the Boys and then with New South, he finally pursued a solo career in the early eighties, signing with RCA records.

His first album, A Hard Act to Follow, made little impact, but his second set, L.A. to Miami, earned him stardom. It featured his breakout hit, “Miami, My Amy”, and raised his profile considerably, but Whitley was displeased with the album's slick sound.   He truly found his voice on his first gold album, Don't Close Your Eyes, which featured three consecutive #1 hits, including the CMA Single of the Year, “I'm No Stranger to the Rain”, and the modern standard, “When You Say Nothing at All.”

Whitley became a new standard-bearer for neo-traditional country music, receiving critical acclaim that exceeded that of contemporaries like Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton.   With the chart success and a marriage to fellow country artist Lorrie Morgan that had just produced a son, Whitley was poised for long-term professional and personal success.

Sadly, he was battling alcoholism, a fight that he lost in May 1989, when he died of alcohol poisoning.  Amazingly, his success continued posthumously with the album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me also selling gold and featuring three big hits.   He remained a presence on radio in the early nineties through duets with other artists.   A collaboration with Morgan earned the CMA Vocal Event trophy, and a collaboration with Earl Thomas Conley reached #2 in 1991.

Whitley's recording career was brief, but much like Patsy Cline before him, his influence has cast a long shadow over the genre.

Essential Singles:

  • Miami, My Amy, 1985
  • Don't Close Your Eyes, 1988
  • When You Say Nothing at All, 1988
  • I'm No Stranger to the Rain, 1989
  • I Wonder Do You Think of Me, 1989
  • Brotherly Love (with Earl Thomas Conley), 1991

Essential Albums:

  • L.A. to Miami, 1985
  • Don't Close Your Eyes, 1988
  • I Wonder Do You Think of Me, 1989
  • Kentucky Bluebird, 1991

Next: #51. Sonny James

Previous: #53. Brooks & Dunn

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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