On This Day: Keith Whitley Releases Final Album During His Lifetime With ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’ in 1988

by Jim Casey

Keith Whitley released his breakthrough album, Don’t Close Your Eyes, on May 31, 1988. The album produced three consecutive No. 1 singles, earmarking Keith for almost certain country music superstardom. However, less than one year after the album’s release, Keith, 34, died from alcohol poisoning on May 9, 1989.

Now, 33 years after his death, Keith will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And the strength of Don’t Close Your Eyes is a big reason why Keith is in the CMHOF’s Class of 2022.

Don’t Close Your Eyes

As a teen and into his 20s, Kentucky native Keith Whitley earned his chops playing guitar—and eventually singing—alongside Ricky Skaggs in Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass band in the 1970s. In 1983, Keith took the plunge, moved to Nashville, and began singing demos. In 1984, he signed to RCA Nashville, but his first three singles flopped on the charts.

However, with the release of “Miami, My Amy” in 1986, Keith scored his first Top 20 hit. He backed that up with Top 10 singles “Ten Feet Away,” “Homecoming ’63,” and “Hard Livin’.” All four of the aforementioned songs were featured on Keith’s 1985 debut album, L.A. to Miami. With his once-in-a-lifetime voice, Keith was being hailed as one of the new keepers of the traditionalist flame.

In March 1988, Keith released “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” As the single began moving up the chart, Keith dropped his sophomore album of the same name, Don’t Close Your Eyes, on May 31, 1988. The single peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in August. Keith had scored his first chart-topping hit.

Of course, Keith’s next single from the album, “When You Say Nothing At All,” followed suit. It reached No. 1 on Christmas Eve in 1988. Keith released “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” in January 1989. On April 8, the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Keith had scored his third consecutive No. 1 single.

Remembering Keith Whitley

However, one month after Keith topped the charts with “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” he died in his home from alcohol poisoning on May 9, 1989. Country music lost one of its brightest stars. At the CMA Awards five months later, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” was named CMA Single of the Year.

After his death, Keith’s next two single, “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It’s Ain’t Nothin'” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

During his Country Music Hall of Fame announcement earlier this month, the CMA noted: “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].”

Keith Whitley was a star. And his music continues to burn bright, more that 30 years after his death.