Keith Whitley Biography

About the Star Country Music Lost Too Soon

Photo of Keith Whitley
Ebet Roberts / GettyImages

Keith Whitley was well on his way to becoming a bonafide country superstar at the time of his premature death in 1989. He rocketed to fame in the 1980s thanks to his silky baritone voice that struck a chord with listeners, and he continues to influence an entire generation of entertainers decades after his death. 

Whitley was a part of the neotraditional country movement. His versatility as a performer allowed him to sing soft ballads and hard honky tonk numbers with ease, putting him in good company with fellow '80s country singers and neo-traditionalists like George Strait, Ricky Van Shelton and Randy Travis. 

Whitley's Early Life

Jackie Keith Whitley was born on July 1, 1955 and grew up in Sandy Hook, Kentucky. He began singing as a child and he had learned how to play guitar by the time he was eight. He was singing on a Charleston, West Virginia radio station within a year. He formed his first group, a bluegrass band, at age 13.

A few years later, he formed the Lonesome Mountain Boys with friend Ricky Skaggs. They mostly played Stanley Brothers songs and they built a local fan base over time. Little did they know they'd wind up playing with their idol.

The Clinch Mountain Boys

Ralph Stanley was looking to put his band back together in 1969 following the death of his brother and bandmate, Carter. He asked Whitley and Skaggs to join his group, the Clinch Mountain Boys. Whitley and Skaggs accepted the offer and started appearing with the band the following year. Whitley performed with the Clinch Mountain Boys for the next two years and they recorded seven albums, including Crying From the Cross, which was named Bluegrass Album of the Year in 1971.

Whitley left the group in 1973 and spent the next few years hopping from band to band, only to return to the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1975. He stayed with them for two more years. They issued a whopping five new albums, then Whitley left the group a second time in 1978 to join the New South, J.D. Crowe's Band. The group combined bluegrass and country and released three albums between 1978 and 1982.

Whitley's Solo Career

Whitley left the New South in 1982 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1983 in hopes of launching a solo career. He signed with RCA Records and released his first solo effort, the Hard Act to Follow EP, in 1984. The honkytonk-heavy EP wasn't an ideal introduction, but he followed up in 1985 with L.A. to Miami. His debut album was undoubtedly his breakthrough and spawned the No. 14 single "Miami, My Amy" and the Top 10 hits "Ten Feet Away," "Homecoming '63" and "Hard Livin'." He married fellow country star Lorrie Morgan the next year. 

L.A. to Miami was a huge success, but Whitley wasn't a fan of the album's overly polished sound. He recorded his third solo effort in 1987, but he thought it sounded just as overdone as his last release and he convinced his label to shelve it.

Whitley then teamed up with a new producer, Garth Fundis, and the two went on to create 1988's Don't Close Your Eyes. It produced three No. 1 hit singles in a row: "Don't Close Your Eyes," "When You Say Nothing at All" and "I Wonder Do You Think of Me."

Whitley's Death

Don't Close Your Eyes was a huge commercial success that cemented Whitley's standing as one of country's most promising new faces, but things weren't as promising behind the scenes.

Whitley was suffering from a severe case of alcoholism. He'd been an alcoholic for much of his life. He began drinking as a teen at his bluegrass shows and he yo-yoed with sobriety for years. He also suffered from depression, which made quitting even more difficult. Whitley concealed his habit by drinking alone. Wife Lorrie Morgan had tried and failed many times to get him sober. His alcoholism got so bad that Morgan would tie their legs together at night so she'd know if he tried to get out of bed to drink.

Whitley died at on May 9, 1989 in Nashville after a weekend of partying. He was 33 years old. His official cause of death is alcohol poisoning. His blood alcohol level was .47 percent, more than six times the state's current .08 percent legal limit.

His Posthumous Career

Whitley's career has lasted long beyond his premature death. He'd just wrapped his fourth studio album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me, at the time of his death. The album was issued three months after he died and produced the hits "I Wonder Do You Think of Me" and "It Ain't Nothin'," bringing his streak of No. 1 hit singles to five.

Greatest Hits followed in 1990 and it peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and went platinum. The album includes the new songs "Tell Lorrie I Love Her," which Whitley wrote and recorded in his home, and "'Til a Tear Becomes a Rose," a duet with Morgan. Morgan got control of her husband's namesake following his death and recorded her voice alongside his for the track. It was released as a single, peaked at No. 13 and earned Morgan and her late husband a 1990 CMA Award for Best Vocal Collaboration.

RCA then released Kentucky Bluebird, a compilation of performances and unreleased material from Whitley's days with the Clinch Mountain Boys. In 1994, Morgan organized several of the biggest names in country and bluegrass to record ​Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album. The album includes performances by Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson and Alison Krauss, and Union Station, as well as four previously unreleased tracks Whitley recorded in 1987. Wherever You Are Tonight was released in 1995, which Morgan produced, and it features restored demos.

Over the past decade several film projects about Whitley's life have been rumored to be in the works, though nothing has been verified.