The Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum tells the story of soulful singer Keith Whitley in its exhibition Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley. The exhibit opens May 3, 2019, and runs through April 5, 2020.
Whitley completed only four solo studio albums before his death in 1989, at age 33. But despite the brevity of his career, he produced many significant country hits, and his music continues to exert tremendous influence on subsequent generations of country singers. Many of the groundbreaking artists who expanded country music’s audience in the 1990s—including Country Music Hall of Fame member Garth Brooks, Country Music Hall of Fame member Alan Jackson, Alison Krauss and Tim McGraw—cite Whitley as a primary influence. His impact continues into the new century, through the work of acolytes Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Chris Young and others.
“Whitley’s haunting and emotional voice represented the resurgence of the traditional sound on mainstream country radio,” said Kyle Young, CEO, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “His bluegrass roots and love for honky-tonk music led to his unique, drawling style that continues to inspire and influence today’s country music artists. We are honored to examine the indelible impact of Whitley’s brief but significant career.”
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 13, 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.
On the announcement of the exhibition, Morgan said: “I cannot express what an honor it is for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to recognize the late, great Keith Whitley as such an important part of country music history. He was not only instrumental in giving me the confidence I needed as an artist, but through the years, he has given many other up-and-coming stars the confidence and true grit they have acquired by loving and listening to the music of Keith Whitley. This exhibit is not just Keith’s life in music, but also depicts his love for country as well as bluegrass music. Keith always felt inadequate of the recognition he deserved. Keith was the most humble, generous, and truly the most talented man I have ever known. Before Keith’s death, he was three weeks away from his lifelong dream of being made a member of the Grand Ole Opry, a surprise that he never knew about. Speaking for myself, his daughter Morgan, son-in-law Justin, his son Jesse Keith, daughter-in-law Kristen, his grandchildren Preston, Parker, and Tuff, his unborn granddaughter, and all of the Whitleys and all of the Morgans, this is an honor we have longed to show the world. This exhibit is the life and times of Keith Whitley.”
Items featured in Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley include stage wear, significant instruments and personal artifacts representative of Whitley’s childhood and music career. Some highlights include:
- A Sony TC-540 reel-to-reel tape recorder with detachable speakers, used by Elmer Whitley to record the Lonesome Mountain Boys, a bluegrass group featuring his sons Dwight and Keith (recordings were broadcast weekly on radio station WLKS)
- A Dangerous Threads bolero jacket worn by Whitley at one of his final public performances in March 1989
- A 1980 C.W. Parsons & Co. acoustic guitar with walnut finish used extensively by Whitley
- Original draft of Country Music Hall of Fame member Don Schlitz’s handwritten lyrics to “When You Say Nothing at All,” a #1 hit for Whitley in 1988 (co-written with Paul Overstreet)
- Whitley’s handwritten lyrics to “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” and “Wherever You Are Tonight” (which appear on his posthumous, 1995 album Wherever You Are Tonight)