Keith Whitley or Alison Krauss & Union Station, “When You Say Nothing At All”

When You Say Nothing At All
Keith Whitley or Alison Krauss & Union Station

Written by Paul Overstreet & Don Schlitz

Sometimes, silence says it best.

With “When You Say Nothing at All,” written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, the magic is in the calm and the quiet. The song was a poetic ode to the desperately devoted, and countless people connected with the simple song of love’s mysterious ways. In the narrator’s view, love is often at its most powerful when no words are needed, and even the wordsmith Webster couldn’t define the divine emotion. The song’s multiple readings have resulted in uniquely different takes on the graceful lyric. The two most notable recordings sprung from a troubled singer whose music continues to impact audiences twenty years after his death, and a pure vocalist whose heavenly strains have enraptured country and bluegrass devotees for almost two decades.

Keith Whitley recorded the original version of the ballad, and released it as the follow-up to the title track of his album Don’t Close Your Eyes. His effortless vocal matched perfectly with the uncomplicated nature of the song, and fans responded to the sweet, straightforward message. “When You Say Nothing At All” wound up as Whitley’s second #1 single in December 1988, and stands as one of his five consecutive #1 singles during the late 1980s. Unfortunately, Whitley died of alcohol poisoning in May 1989, just six months after the song reached the top of the charts.

Alison Krauss, a ten-year veteran of bluegrass music at the age of 23, recorded “When You Say Nothing at All” with her group, Union Station, in 1994 for a tribute album to Whitley. After the song started to receive unsolicited airplay, BNA Records issued Krauss’ version to radio in January 1995. That version, also featured on Krauss’ compilation Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection, reached #3 on the country singles chart in the spring of 1995.

The song became the centerpiece of a career year for Krauss and Union Station. Krauss alone won four CMA awards that fall, including Female Vocalist of the Year, and the group’s recording of the gorgeous ballad won the award for Single of the Year. Numerous accolades have marked their country music journey since that evening, and they quickly moved into public awareness far beyond the bluegrass community that had embraced them previously.

That success, and the legacy of Keith Whitley as a masterful traditional voice, can partly be attributed to this classic country song.   The universal significance of “When You Say Nothing At All”, a gentle reminder about the tender triumphs of genuine love, carries far beyond any number of trials and troubles that may break life’s precious moments of silence.

“When You Say Nothing at All” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.


  1. I prefer the Keith original. I’m glad the duet introduced some new folks to Keith’s music, but it doesn’t come close to the original. Neither have all the other remakes that have been recorded since.

  2. Roger,

    The duet was created by a radio DJ and not intended for multiple station plays. Although I still hear all 3 versions on radio from time to time. I like both versions but really like Keith’s.

  3. Marc,

    Your admission is safe with me. As I admitted in Kevin’s “Artists We Just Don’t Get” thread last summer, wWhitley never did anything much for me either. I like his voice, I like his songs, but I like the tribute album better than the originals.

  4. I like both versions as I find it interesting to hear the male v. female perspective.

    HOWEVER, I never cared for the remix. They are at slightly different tempos and it just sounds too forced, too …. I don’t know, just don’t care for it.
    It was infact pieced together by a Nashville dj basically for local play, ie. his show…. and the rest is history.

  5. I’ve always regard Keith Whitley’s version of the song as the definitive recording of the song.

    That said, I also like Alison’s shimmering recording of the song – as covers go, it is very good. It’s just not as good as the original, Alison simply doesn’t have that “Lefty Frizzell” influence in her voice that makes Keith’s voice so perfect for this particular song

  6. I liked the song so much that I used Alison’s version at my wedding.

    I think I’ve only heard Keith’s version once and I wasn’t used to it ’cause I heard Alison’s version first.

  7. That ’side of the mouth’ delivery of a lyric that marked Frizzell’s singing has only been heard on Whitley and early George Strait recordings …

    are we forgetting John Anderson here? LOL

  8. I agree with the John Anderson comment. I heard Frizzell’s smooth voice when I was clicking into Old Nashville stuff on YouTube.

    At the time Frizzell was living I was still not into country as I was turned off by the Ronny Milsap/Charlie Daniels/Bert Renolds Movies/etc ‘country scene’ at the time and got into Michael Jackson and U2 and college dance stuff, etc. I never left George and Johnny and Willie, but I bought a John Anderson CD a few years ago and said ‘Wow’.

    Anyway, I was drilling into more of Whitley and listened to the I Did Everything Hank Did, but Die’, and a few others. I then came across this song and it probably is the best song he recorded that I heard on YouTube. Then it was after I heard his main repetoire, that I clicked into the Lorrie Morgan/Geraldo interview, where they said he was dead, and so I kinda had a mini-mourning for this guy. I think he was just starting to work with better material. I don’t know how many songs he actually wrote himself, as he didn’t write this one. But I like John Anderson better. JA’s songs carried deeper meaning and I think he sings better too. But this Whitley song is now in my permanent country collection as a ‘must have’. It is sad and I was shocked to find Lorrie has since twice remarried and now she is married to Sammy Kershaw (who is just OK in my book). But she is so hot and sounds so good that everyone that sees her falls in love with her. So I have a lot of respect for Whitley as he got her to marry him and have kids together. This is sadder than Tammy passing away and wondering what George was thinking.

  9. Another comment about John Anderson. Was he forced to release the song: ‘Justa Swingin’? I reach for the ‘next song’ button everytime I hear it.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. sammy kershaw

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.