Week 21: Keith Whitley, son of Lefty

Week 21: Keith Whitley, son of Lefty

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

During my piece on Garth Brooks two weeks back, something bizarre and unexpected happened: People read and commented extensively on a Nashville Or Bust piece. This was quite a shock, as I always thought the series would grow increasingly less popular until its readership consisted of my editors, myself, and possibly my dad. (There are limits to even that man’s patience.)

This was, of course, extremely alarming, so I’ve decided to follow up the most popular, well-read Nashville Or Bust entry in ages with an entry on an artist sure to invite shrugs of disinterest from the A.V. Club readership, and sympathetic nods of “Hey, I like that guy” from one or two special souls. 

I became familiar with Keith Whitley in a roundabout way. While dicking around on YouTube looking for clips of Lefty Frizzell, I encountered a video of Keith Whitley delivering a heartbreaking version of Frizzell’s “I Never Go Around Mirrors.” Who was this man with the brooding, soulful eyes, disturbingly leonine facial hair, regrettable halo of heavily permed bleached-blond ’80s hair, and beautiful voice?

I have subsequently learned that “I Never Go Around Mirrors” is a song with a sinister secret. Thought it appears to be a tear-in-your-beer heartbreaker about a man unable to cope with the ravages of time, it was actually Frizzell’s subtle way of going public with his vampirism. His follow-up, “Keep Garlic, Sunlight, And Crucifixes Away From Me, For I Drink Human Blood” was even more overt. 

Frizzell was a gateway to Whitley, just as Merle Haggard and “Hank And Lefty” led me to Frizzell, and Johnny Cash and Haggard’s shared appreciation for the Singing Brakeman led me to Jimmie Rodgers. The chain of inspiration stretches far and wide, and it has myriad wonders in store for folks willing to see where it leads. 

The more I read about Whitley, the more he seemed seminal, like a crucial link between classic Frizzell and Haggard country, and tradition-minded contemporary superstars like George Straight. Whitley lived and died the life he sang about. Though I couldn’t find a biography on him, the interview snippets on the posthumous Kentucky Bluebird compilation provide a fascinating snapshot into his life, career, and times. In the disc’s earliest, neatest segment, an 8-year-old Whitley, all nerves and raw edges, sings a Lefty Frizzell song on the radio. On an interview with American Country Countdown, Whitley talks affectionately of listening to Frizzell and George Jones as a kid, and combining his reverence for their work with an early love of bluegrass. 

That led to a fruitful friendship with Ricky Skaggs, and an invitation to join him in Ralph Stanley’s band while Whitley was still in his teens. Whitley eventually scored a solo deal, married a country star (Lorrie Morgan), and developed an alcohol problem so bad that Morgan used to tie their legs together at night so Whitley couldn’t slink off and steal hooch. He released some classic albums, then died of alcohol poisoning in 1989. He was 33. 

So when we mourn Whitley, we mourn both what was and what might have been. He comes to us with the halo of early, dramatic death. His legend is wrapped up in the elaborate mythology of artists taken before their time. And his death is even more heartbreaking because he was in such a good place creatively. Who knows what masterpieces might have ensued if he’d lived, if we were contemplating Whitley as a veteran country institution rather than as an instant musical martyr?

Whitley’s RCA career began with the little-heard 1984 EP A Hard Act To Follow, but he didn’t achieve substantial chart success until 1986’s L.A. To Miami, on which he was still clearly trying to find himself musically. From the title onward, an unmistakable Yacht Rock vibe pervades L.A. To Miami, as Whitley’s effortlessly ingratiating vocals battle tepid ballads, maudlin story-songs, and production defined by sleepy synthesizers and adult-contemporary saxophone cheese. Yet buried under the middle-of-the-road arrangements and nauseating production excess lies something scruffy, winning, and real. Like his hero, Frizzell, Whitley has a genius for breathing sadness, vulnerability, and aching human emotion into the hoariest songs. “Homecoming ’63,” for example, is in almost every way a terrible, terrible song, a toxic mélange of soft-rock wimpiness, romantic pap, and rose-colored nostalgia, but it’s far more affecting than it should be.

I didn’t particularly care for the songs or the production on L.A. To Miami, but I liked Whitley. There’s something innately appealing about him. Like Jones and Frizzell, Whitley had an innate mastery of country storytelling—he knew just when to attack a good line and when to hold back. Whitley possessed the variables that separate a good country singer from an icon: likeability, accessibility, tenderness, and that ineffable quality known as charisma. You have to be pretty goddamned talented to become a minor-grade country legend when you look like that. 

Listening to L.A. To Miami, I remember thinking that if his label would only let him perform country music, Whitley would be unstoppable. Sure enough, RCA let him do just that on his 1988 breakthrough album, Don’t Close Your Eyes. (Abandoned subtitle: “Or I Will Murder You With A Knife.”) From its first track, “Flying Colors,” onward, it’s a straight-up honky-tonker, with Whitley lending his interpretive gifts to a first-class batch of songs and gloriously restrained arrangements.

Whitley combined Frizzell’s casual delivery with Jones’ gift for melodrama. It’s apparent in the exquisitely restrained melancholy and resilience Whitley brings to the lines “I’ve been sacrificed by brothers, crucified by lovers / But through it all, I withstood the pain / I’m no stranger to the rain.”

Whitley’s winning streak continued with 1989’s hauntingly titled I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, which was released a month after he died of alcohol poisoning. Its title echoes that of 2Pac’s R U Still Down (Remember Me), which was also released posthumously. (Also, to a much lesser extent, Freaky Tah’s Remember I Did That Song Once? And Now I’m Dead?)

I Wonder Do You Think Of Me’s title track boasts an added pathos in light of Whitley’s early death. In conception, it’s a sequel of sorts to “Homecoming ’63,” as a heartbroken man looks back on the bliss of his high-school romance as an impossible Eden he can never reclaim. It’s more than a little hokey and sentimental, but Whitley sells every nostalgia-choked emotion. That’s his genius; he could break your heart with a great song like “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” but he could also manipulate emotions and tug on the heartstrings with treacly ditties unworthy of his talent. 

Whitley didn’t have to worry about whether his fans would think of him. Though he never did better than a couple of gold albums, he’s become a legendary figure in contemporary country. Garth Brooks put him in his pantheon of heroes in the music video for The Dance. Tribute albums have been recorded in his honor. Not bad for a sensitive guy with a drinking problem and unconscionably feathered hair.

Whitley never got to grow old in music. He never became an elder statesman of country, the kind of guy young artists look up to the way Whitley looked up to the generations before him. He never got to put out his American Recordings. But in dying young, he became part of the great continuum of country, a man who did right by the legends that preceded him, and inspired many an artist who followed in his wake. 

Up next on Nashville Or Bust:
George Strait 
Waylon Jennings 
Kris Kristofferson 
Buck Owens 
Lee Hazlewood 
Loretta Lynn