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Keith Whitley

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AboutKeith Whitley's legacy loomed large over the country music
landscape of the '90s. A talented new country singer and songwriter,
Whitley was just beginning to emerge as a superstar at the time of
his death in 1989. Throughout the next decade, his reputation as both
a performer and writer continued to grow, as other artists had hits
with his songs and posthumous recordings climbed into the Top Ten.

Born and raised in Kentucky, Whitley began singing as a child,
winning a talent contest at the age of four. When he was eight years
old, he learned how to play guitar and within a year he was singing
on a Charleston, WV-based radio station. Whitley formed his first
band at the age of 13, playing nothing but straight bluegrass. A few
years later, he formed the Lonesome Mountain Boys with his high
school friend, Ricky Skaggs. The Lonesome Mountain Boys primarily
played Stanley Brothers songs and soon became a popular attraction.

In the late '60s, Ralph Stanley was looking to re-form his band
after the death of his brother and partner, Carter. He was so
impressed with Whitley and Skaggs, he asked them to join his
Clinch Mountain Boys group. The duo accepted the offer
immediately and began appearing with the band in 1970. Whitley
stayed with the Clinch Mountain Boys for two years, recording
a total of seven albums, including 1971's Crying From the Cross,
which was named the Bluegrass Album of the Year.

In 1973, Whitley left the group. For two years, he drifted
through various other bands, including acts that played country,
not bluegrass. He returned to the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1975
and stayed with them for another two years. During his second
tenure with the band, he made five albums. In 1978, Keith
joined J.D. Crowe's band the New South. Whitley recorded three
albums with the New South between 1978 and 1982, which
vacillated between bluegrass and straight country (the highlights
of this era were re-released on CD as Sad Songs & Waltzes
in 2000).

Whitley began a full-fledged solo career after leaving the New
South in 1982. Signing with RCA Records, he released his debut
album, Hard Act to Follow, in 1984. A record of pure honky tonk,
it didn't attract much of an audience. The following year, he
released L.A. to Miami, a more commercial affair which spawned
the number 14 single "Miami, My Amy." After that single peaked
early in 1986, he had three back-to-back Top Ten hits: "Ten Feet
Away," "Homecoming '63," and "Hard Livin'." Late in 1986, he
married Lorrie Morgan.

Although L.A. to Miami was a success, its slick production
didn't please Whitley. In 1987, he recorded a follow-up to the
record that sounded exactly the same as its predecessor.
Unsatisfied with the musical direction of his new effort, Whitley
convinced RCA to shelve the completed album and have him
work on another record with a new producer, Garth Fundis.
Don't Close Your Eyes was the result. Released in the spring of
1988, the album solidified Whitley's commercial standing. The
first three singles from Don't Close Your Eyes — "Don't Close
Your Eyes," "When You Say Nothing at All," and "I'm No
Stranger to the Rain" — were all number one hits.

Things may have been going smoothly on the surface for
Keith Whitley, but behind the scenes he was being torn apart
by alcoholism. On May 9, 1989, he suffered from a fatal case
of alcohol poisoning; he was 34 at the time of his demise. Just
before his death, he completed his fourth album, I Wonder Do
You Think of Me. The record was released shortly after his
death and its first single, which was the title track, reached
number one, as did its follow-up, "It Ain't Nothin"; another
single from the album, "I'm Over You," reached number three
in 1990. During the '90s, RCA repackaged and re-released many
of Whitley's recordings — including several unreleased songs
— in various compilations. Lorrie Morgan recorded an electronic
duet, "'Til a Tear Becomes a Rose," with her late husband in
1990; it peaked at number 13. In 1994, a tribute album to
Whitley was released.

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