His name may not be as well known as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline or others who died in their creative primes, but there is a certain reverence for Keith Whitley that is still felt, and occasionally heard, throughout Nashville. Whitley, despite a relatively brief career, became the embodiment of the idea that country music is “three chords and the truth.” In any conversation about genuine country vocalists, his is the name that ends the discussion.
Unfortunately, Whitley was also one of country music’s most knowingly self-destructive alcoholics. On May 9th, 1989, he died from acute alcohol poisoning. He was 33.
A native Kentuckian, Whitley explored his home state’s bluegrass tradition before eventually relocating to Nashville and pursuing a career on Music Row. He had Top 10 hits with “Ten Feet Away” and “Homecoming ’63” in 1986, but it was a string of Number Ones, beginning with 1988’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” that cemented his place in the format.
Whitley’s song “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” was the last single released prior to his death in May 1989. It too reached the top of the country chart and Whitley performed the song in the U.K. at the 1989 International Festival of Country Music shortly before he died.
With his short but bright run, he left an indelible mark on the genre, influencing future stars from Tim McGraw to Chris Janson. Chris Young, a devout Whitley follower, even purchased the late singer’s guitar.