Though Keith Whitley had only a brief career in country music (1984 to 1989), his impact on the genre remains, with modern artists still covering hits such as, “Don’t Close Your Eyes” and “When You Say Nothing At All.”
Whitley grew up in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, forming a band with his brother Dwight and future fellow artist, Ricky Skaggs. However, it wasn’t until 1982 that Whitley signed with Nashville’s division of RCA Records. He went on to have 19 singles hit the Billboard country charts along with five consecutive Number Ones, including two of his most well-known songs, “Don’t Close Your Eyes” and “When You Say Nothing At All.” Both songs appeared on Whitley’s successful album, which was also titled, Don’t Close Your Eyes.
In addition, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” a third song from the same album was named the CMA Single of the Year in 1989.
“When You Say Nothing At All,” a song that’s been described as “one of the most timeless country songs” found its way to Whitley thanks to songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz. Overstreet and Schlitz reportedly wrote the song when they were “trying to find a way to say nothing,” then wound up pitching the song to Whitley, who loved it and decided to record it.
Whitley’s version of “When You Say Nothing At All” made it a hit and prompted artists such as Alison Krauss, Union Station, and even Irish singer-songwriter Ronan Keating to record their own respective versions of the song. (Keating’s cover of the song appeared on the soundtrack for the 1999 film, Notting Hill). The song also served as Whitley’s first Number One in 1988.
Whitley’s musical success came just as his personal life began to take off as well. In 1986, Whitley married his second wife, Lorrie Morgan. The couple was married for less than three years when Whitley died in 1989.
Whitley, who struggled with alcoholism since he was a teenager, died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 33. Whitley was found dead in his bed with a blood alcohol of .47 on May 9, 1989 by his brother-in-law, Lane Palmer. Palmer was reportedly with Whitley earlier that morning and the pair had lunch and golf plans for later in the day.
His fourth album, I Wonder Do You Think Of Me was released following his death, hitting Number Two on the charts.
Despite his brief career and tragic death, Whitley is regarded as one of country music’s greatest artists for his songs’ honesty.