On This Day: Keith Whitley Passes Away in 1989

by Emily Morgan

Country music lost a legend much too soon when 32 years ago today, Keith Whitley died, at just 33-years old.

Tragically, Keith Whitley’s brother-in-law, Lane Palmer, found him dead in his home. Palmer had just been with the country music singer earlier that morning when they met up for coffee. They had plans to go golfing and have lunch together. 

When Palmer returned to pick up Whitley, he found him in his bed unresponsive. The singer-songwriter’s blood-alcohol level was .47. Doctors later determined that he passed away from alcohol poisoning.

The tragedy came just as Whitley was well on it’s his way to country music stardom. His last single, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” had reached the No. 1 spot on the charts only one month earlier. 

In the wake of Keith Whitley’s passing, he was survived by his wife, Lorrie Morgan, whom he was married to for less than three years before his death. He was also survived by his son Jessie, as well as a step-daughter, Morgan. 

“Keith was great for months at a time, and then for no reason at all, he’d start drinking,” Lorrie Morgan once told People magazine. “Once he started, you literally had to tie him down or lock him up to make him quit. I tied my robe belt to my leg and to his ankle at night so I would know if he tried to get out of bed. Otherwise he would continue drinking until he passed out. I had to rush him to the emergency room several times in the past because he quit breathing; the paramedics always got to him in time.”

Keith Whitley’s Wife Still Has Regrets 32 Years Later

Lorrie Morgan was in Alaska on a promotional tour when he passed away, which still haunts her today. “I live with that yoke of not being home when he died. I know if I had been, he would be alive,” she added. “I begged my manager not to make me go, but he said I should.”

At Whitley’s funeral service in Madison, Tenn., Ricky Skaggs sang at the service, with Ralph Emery and David Frizzell among the pallbearers.

Additionally, Keith Whitley’s death didn’t just shake his friends and family. The entire country music community mourned the loss, including his friend Vince Gill. Gill started writing “Go Rest High on That Mountain” after Whitley’s death and finished the song four years later when he lost his brother due to a heart attack.

Whitley’s record company released three more of his albums posthumously, including I Wonder Do You Think of Me, which came out three months after he died. The record produced two No. 1 singles.