Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley
Keith Whitley cast a long shadow in a short 33 years, his soulful songs and haunting voice influencing both contemporaries and successors, from Country Music Hall of Fame member Garth Brooks to Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.
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Open May 3, 2019 - April 5, 2020
Many of the groundbreaking artists who expanded country music’s audience in the 1990s—including Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, and Country Music Hall of Fame members Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson—cite soulful singer Keith Whitley as a primary influence. And his impact continues today, through the work of acolytes Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Chris Young, and others.
Keith Whitley’s history
Born July 1, 1955, Whitley was raised in Sandy Hook, a tiny Appalachian coal-mining town in northeastern Kentucky. He made his radio debut at age eight, performing “You Win Again,” a 1952 Hank Williams hit, on WCHS in Charleston, West Virginia. At age thirteen, the singer began his professional career in earnest, forming a band with his older brother Dwight and friend and future Country Music Hall of Fame member Ricky Skaggs. Just two years later, Whitley and Skaggs joined the Clinch Mountain Boys, led by their musical hero Ralph Stanley. Whitley’s warm baritone appears on several Clinch Mountain Boys albums and on the records of J.D. Crowe & the New South.
In 1982, Whitley signed with the Nashville division of RCA to great acclaim from fans of traditional country music. After some initial misfires and minor hits, Whitley convinced RCA to scrap an entire album and allow him to produce his own work, a decision that led to his commercial breakthrough. Teaming with co-producer Garth Fundis, Whitley delivered a successful and critically lauded album, Don’t Close Your Eyes. Singles from the album included Whitley’s first #1 hits: “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “When You Say Nothing at All,” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” named CMA Single of the Year in 1989.
Whitley’s mounting career success was mirrored by newfound happiness in his personal life. In 1989, Whitley was thriving, raising a family with second wife Lorrie Morgan. Then, on May 9, 1989, shortly after finishing work on his next studio album, I Wonder Do You Think of Me, Whitley passed away from alcohol poisoning.
I Wonder Do You Think of Me was released three months later, on August 1, 1989, and it yielded two more #1 hits, with the title track and “It Ain’t Nothin’.” “I’m Over You” also reached #3, in early 1990.
Keith Whitley exhibition highlights
Items featured in Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley include stage wear, instruments, and personal artifacts representative of Whitley’s childhood and music career.
Some highlights include a Sony TC-540 reel-to-reel tape recorder Elmer Whitley used to record the Lonesome Mountain Boys, a bluegrass group featuring his sons Dwight and Keith; a Dangerous Threads bolero jacket Whitley wore at one of his final public performances, in March 1989; and a 1980 C.W. Parsons & Co. acoustic guitar Whitley used extensively.
For more on Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley and other Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibitions, visit our Current Exhibits page.
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