Keith Whitley Sings Again (1996)
Originally published in the Jan. 23, 1996 issue of Country Weekly featuring Tracy on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
Keith Whitley died more than six years ago, but the legendary singer is still releasing critically acclaimed albums, thanks to modern technology.
The latest Wherever You Are Tonight, features 10 new Whitley tunes highlighting the Eastern Kentucky crooner’s sweet voice that widow Lorrie Morgan calls the greatest to ever sing country music.
The album was spurred in part by Alison Krauss’ recent rendition of Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All.”
Some radio stations combined Keith’s vocals with Alison’s version of the song, producing a duet that caught the attention of fans everywhere.
Lorrie was asked about the “duet” during a radio interiew. RCA Vice President Randy Goodman said: “She said she hadn’t heard it, so they played it. It visibly moved her, and the station’s phones started lighting up with Keith Whitley fans wanting to talk about him with Lorrie. It was so obvious that there was still a huge fan interest in Keith.”
RCA was so impressed, it immediately began paring down 27 unreleased songs and partial vocal cuts that Keith had made in the months prior to his 1989 death from an accidental alcohol overdose. Virtually all music and backing vocals were removed, leaving only Whitley’s crisp, Bluegrass-tinged voice. RCA then hired many of Music City’s finest musicians—all of whom knew Keith—and recorded new music to add to his vocals.
To hear producers Steve Lindsey and Benny Quinn tell it, Keith was a hauntingly real part of the recording process. “I was sitting at my house one night talking to Ron Oates on the phone,” Quinn said. “Ron was playing piano and synthesizer on the album, and we were discussing the songs we were going to put strings on. The weather was good, there was no storm, and I had my stereo off. Suddenly, the electricity went off. When it came back on, Keith’s tape in my machine just started playing.”
Keith’s magical touch has always captivated his widow. She told an interviewer about the first time she saw him: “I was a receptionist at Acuff-Rose Publications, which is now Opryland Music. During the evenings I would go back and do demo sessions for the writers over there. This one particular night, I had stayed over late. In the studio was Don Gant, producing Keith Whitley on a song called `Does Ft. Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?’
“I walked past the studio and I saw the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life standing in the studio, and I said, `Oh my God, who is that?’
“My producer, Ronnie Gant, who was Don Gant’s brother, said, `That’s a new guy in town named Keith Whitley.’ He was the best looking thing I have ever seen. Ronnie said, `Well, he’s married, so forget it.’ And I said OK. That was the very first time I had ever met him. I thought he was the best country singer I had ever heard. Ever.”
Thanks to his work as a demo singer, Whitley was signed to RCA records in 1984, but his early singles flopped—including his first release, “Turn Me To Love,” which featured harmony vocals from Reba McEntire and Patty Loveless.
Another blow was divorce from first wife Kathi in 1985, but 1986 saw the dawn of the Keith Whitley his fans have loved ever since: “Miami, My Amy” became a breakthrough hit in February of that year, and “Ten Feet Away” marked his first Top 10 hit a few months later.
“One day I’m going down the road in my car and I hear this wonderful voice, this wonderful melody and this beautiful song called `Miami, My Amy,’ and it was Keith Whitley singing it,” Lorrie said. “I just pulled the car over and sat on the side of the road and said, `Man, this is one of the best records I ever heard.’ “Miami, My Amy.” That’s my all-time favorite country song.”
She and Keith started dating soon after that and were married Nov. 22, 1986. Keith went on to sing five songs that reached No. 1, including the 1989 Country Music Association’s Single of the Year, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”
“He had dreams,” Lorrie said of her husband. “He didn’t want to be on the road all his life. He wanted to be male vocalist and entertainer of the year. I guess what every artist dreams of, he had those same dreams. And he wanted to be not on the road so much, he wanted to write more so he could get off the road a little and spend more time with myself and the kids.” The couple have a son Jessie and Keith adopted Lorrie’s daughter Morgan.
“The thing I want every one to be very clear about is that we were so in love,” Lorrie said. “He loved me more than anything in this world, and he loved Jessie and he loved Morgan. And regardless of what the bottle did to him, we were his main concern and his main reason for living. I honestly believe that.”
“Keith treated me like a queen,” Lorrie told one interviewer. “In the three years we were married, he never said one ugly word to me, never raised his voice. As much as I had to take care of him, he took care of me.”
His dreams of course ended when his alcoholism finally got the best of him—but his music lives on, as the spectacular Wherever You Are Tonight proves.