Hall of Fame: 33 Years After His Death, Keith Whitley Finally Gets His Due

by Jim Casey

Last week, in regard to the Country Music Hall of Fame’s impending announcement, I wrote: “Other than Hank Williams, Sr., 29, and Patsy Cline, 30, no other artist had such a profound impact on the country music genre in such a short period of time as Keith Whitley, who died at age 34 in 1989.” My apologies to “The Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, who died at age 35 in 1933. I should have included Rodgers in the mix.

Nonetheless, you get the point. Keith Whitley was a star, who burned brightest before he died. Now, he will be enshrined alongside country music’s brightest stars.

Keith has been dead for 33 years, almost as long as he lived. And finally, he’s getting his due. On May 17, the Country Music Association announced Keith Whitley will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022 in the Modern Era category.

The Whitley Way

As a Kentucky teen, Whitley (with friend Ricky Skaggs) joined Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass troupe, Clinch Mountain Boys. Over the next decade, Whitley established himself as a versatile force in bluegrass with both his guitar work and vocals. He also played with J.D. Crowe and the New South from 1978 to 1982.

In 1983, Whitley moved to Nashville to pursue a solo career, eventually landing a recording contact with RCA in 1984. It was also in Nashville where Keith met his future wife, Lorrie Morgan, who was working as a receptionist at Acuff-Rose Music studio. Keith was cutting the demo in studio for “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” which George Strait scored a No. 1 hit with in 1985. (And this isn’t a hot take, but can we all agree that Keith Whitley’s version is superior to King George’s cut? Agree to disagree, then. But it did get Keith the girl. Lorrie and Keith married in 1986.).

While Keith’s first three singles with RCA fizzled, he scored a Top 20 hit with “Miami, My Amy” in 1985. A handful of Top 10 hits—including “Ten Feet Away” and “Hard Livin'”—followed, before Keith scored his first chart-topper, “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” in August 1988. “When You Say Nothing At All” followed suit in December 1988, as did Keith’s final release—“I’m No Stranger to the Rain”—before he died at age 34 of alcohol poisoning in May 1989. Posthumously released singles “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothin'” also topped the chart in 1989 and 1990, respectively.

Music Was Personal

This nugget was in Keith’s bio, courtesy of the CMA: “Four years seven months and 10 days passed between Keith Whitley’s first appearance on the Billboard Country singles charts and his death on May 9, 1989, at 34. It’s the briefest chart span of any Hall of Famer during their lifetime, nearly six months shorter than Hank Williams’ [span].”

Those are two amazing sentences. Amazing.

And so were the words of Keith’s widow, Lorrie Morgan, who had this to say about Keith’s impending induction into the CMHOF.

“In my heart, this feels like an absolutely appropriate honor, but at the same time, I know that Keith would be painfully humbled, and even shy about accepting an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame,” said Lorrie, who was married to Whitley until his untimely passing. “Music was all about emotion to Keith. It was personal. There were so many great artists he admired, even worshiped. To stand in their company in the Hall of Fame would’ve been overwhelmingly emotional for him. I am thrilled to see him honored this way, and for what it means to my children, Morgan and Jesse Keith; to Keith’s grandchildren; the Whitley family; and to the many, many fans who continue to point to Keith as one of the all-time greats.”

Indeed, Keith is an all-time great. Soon his plaque will hang among the rest of the greats in the Country Music Hall of Fame.