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



  1. Great work as usual, K. A legendary voice lost way too soon. I might also include his duet with Lorrie Morgan “‘Til a Tear Becomes a Rose” as an essential single, mostly for their amazing chemistry, but that’s just me.

  2. Of the posthumous releases, I’d replace Kentucky Bluebird with Somewhere Between, the reworkings of one of the records he did with J D Crowe, which is sublime.

    Ben, Til A Tear Becomes A Rose is lovely, but I believe Lorrie’s vocal was added after Keith’s death, so the chemistry is kind of one-way ;)

  3. Had he survived, Keith would probably have ranked much higher than this. As it is, he is basically just another talented Lefty Frizzell acolyte with a lot of unfulfilled promise.

    I do wonder how well he would have fared when country music drifted away from the new traditionalist movement to the Eagles-influenced rock-schlock that dominates todays music. Would he have continued to survive like George Strait or would he have faded into limbo until the next “new traditionalist” movement arrived (it’s about five years overdue already)

    By the way, THE essential Keith Whitley recording is “I Never Go Around Mirrors”

  4. I think the Eagles-influenced timeline is out of whack. They had their greatest influence on the new traditionalists that brought the genre back in the late eighties and early nineties. Their fingerprints are all over Whitley’s seminal work.

    My guess is that if Whitley lived, he would’ve been alongside Alan Jackson, Lorrie Morgan, John Anderson, and Clint Black on that Eagles tribute album.

    The huge commercial boom of the early nineties, which was the only time country music ever had massive success without compromising itself to court a crossover audience, was largely due to the acts of the time fusing their country and country-rock influences.

    Go back and actually listen to the Eagles’ country-flavored work. It sounds a lot more like Keith Whitley than it does like Jason Aldean.

    Not to go off on too much of a tangent (and give away all of the “Gone Country” retro review I’m working on) but I think what’s helped to kill the genre is trying to be more like Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top instead of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. Bigger, louder, faster, more! Blech.

  5. I heartily agree that Lynyrd Skinner and ZZ Top are also pollutants when it comes to country music, and these days to a significant extent.

    Yes, Eagles sound closer to Keith Whitley than they do Jason Aldean but they would sound closer to ANY act that focused on melody and harmony than does Aldean, who has scarcely any concept of either.

    I don’t hear any Eagles in Keith Whitley. What I do hear is Lefty Frizzell and Ralph Stanley rather than any rock band. To the extent that I hear rock influences they tend to be more Poco or Pure Prairie League.

    By the way, I don’t dislike the sound of Eagles, mostly I dislike many of their lyrics. I do have a few of their albums and there are scattered songs among those albums that I really like

  6. Ben, Til A Tear Becomes A Rose is lovely, but I believe Lorrie’s vocal was added after Keith’s death, so the chemistry is kind of one-way ;)

    I knew that it was released after Keith’s death, but did not know that Lorrie’s vocal was added after his death also. They definitely sound great together either way, though “chemistry” might not be quite the right word to use after all :)

  7. For me it is George Jones, Conway Twitty, and Keith Whitley as the greatest of all time. I wish I would have more time to evaluate Keith because he could have been the best ever. He was an incredible singer songwriter.

  8. I was a mere two when Keith Whitley passed away. However, the more I’ve delved into his catalog the more I revere and love his music in the way I do Alan Jackson, George Strait and Randy Travis. I have no doubt that had he lived, we’d be looking back at his career the way we do George, Randy and Alan today. It’s cliche to say, but it’s a crying shame that Whitley passed so soon.

    Some of my favorite Whitley songs…
    -“Miami, My Amy”
    -“Don’t Close Your Eyes”
    -“I Never Go Around Mirrors”
    -“On the Other Hand”
    -“Kentucky Bluebird”
    -“Somebody’s Doing Me Right”
    -“Til a Tear Becomes a Rose”
    -“Some Old Side Road”

  9. I have to say too that I enjoy Whitley’s version of “Nobody In His Right Mind (Would Have Left Her)” more than Strait’s version of the song. I think the subtlety and softness in his voice that I find works better for the song. Of course it’s like asking a kid to pick which flavor of ice creme they’d rather have, they want them all. I’m the kid here though and forced to pick, I’ll always choose Whitley’s version.

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