Like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley before him, bluegrass pioneer J.D. Crowe routinely found band members destined to become legends in their own right. Having emerged from the band of yet another bluegrass great, Jimmy Martin, the Kentucky-born Crowe and his banjo were featured on dozens of Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys’ recordings for Decca in the late Fifties. Crowe then went on to form the Kentucky Mountain Boys before changing the group’s name in the early Seventies. As J.D. Crowe and the New South, they incorporated country and rock music into their repertoire.
Among the musicians who passed through the Grammy winner’s group were a handful of legends in the making, including Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Doyle Lawson, Tony Rice and Keith Whitley.
Born 61 years ago today, on July 1st, 1955, in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs played in a band called the East Kentucky Mountain Boys before both were discovered by Ralph Stanley and invited to join his Clinch Mountain Boys in 1970. Between 1978 and 1981, Whitley played guitar and sang in the New South, with Crowe on banjo, Bobby Slone on fiddle, Jimmy Gaudreau playing mandolin and Steve Bryant on bass. Crowe would produce a solo LP for Whitley in 1982, before the singer signed to RCA in Nashville. Three of his five consecutive Number One singles, “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “When You Say Nothing At All” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” were released before his death from alcohol poisoning on May 9th, 1989. Whitley was 33 years old.
This vintage clip (circa 1979) features J.D. Crowe and the New South looking casual but capturing Whitley doing what he did best, unleashing a plaintive, hard-country vocal on “Hickory Wind.” The tune was penned by Gram Parsons, the former Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers member whose pioneering music was one of the earliest rock-country hybrids and an influence on countless future musicians. Parsons, who also battled alcoholism and drug abuse, died at 26 years old in 1973.
At the time of his death, Whitley was married to country singer Lorrie Morgan. They had one child together, Jessie Keith Whitley, born in 1987.