Thirty years ago this month, singer Keith Whitley topped the country chart with one of the most romantic ballads of all time. Written by Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet, “When You Say Nothing at All” was the second of Whitley’s five Number One hits, coming just six months before his death from alcohol poisoning at 33 years old.
Whitley’s influence on a younger generation of country singers is profoundly evident in this clip from the Grand Ole Opry featuring “Think a Little Less” singer Michael Ray and Carly Pearce, who, like Whitley, was born in Kentucky. The real-life couple’s tender duet features Ray’s homage to Whitley’s distinctive pure-country vocal, aided by Pearce’s harmony on the first verse. Then, after they switch parts, they’re joined in three-part harmony by Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame legend Ricky Skaggs on the repeat of the chorus.
Skaggs, another Kentucky native, was Whitley’s bandmate in bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys in the early Seventies. A 1971 LP, Second Generation Bluegrass, collected several of their early duet performances. “When You Say Nothing at All” returned to the country charts seven years after Whitley’s death in a career-making performance from another bluegrass superstar, Alison Krauss.