Keith Whitley is a name that needs no introduction in bluegrass, country, or any form of popular music for that matter. Last Thursday May 9, 2019 marked 30 years since the passing of one of the greatest singers to ever draw a breath, and that evening the Country Music Hall of Fame CMA theater was filled with music from some of Nashville’s top acts in his honor. The CMHF had opened up a Keith Whitley exhibit last week, with personal items and memorabilia from Keith. The exhibit is called, Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley.
Chris Keefe and Keith’s widow, Lorrie Morgan, produced the special evening on the evening of the 9th, the 30th anniversary memorial concert, and what a job they did!
My wife Missy and I started the day off by driving by the house in Goodletsville around 9:30 a.m. where Keith was found that dreadful morning. It seems as if everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news in 1989, a testament to what an impact Keith had on folks. We then went to Springhill cemetery and visited Keith. Standing at Keith’s grave Thursday brought back a lot of memories from when I was a kid. Whenever I thought of Keith, I thought of fast cars, Harley’s, Kentucky, practical jokes, and the greatest singer in the world. I never got to know Keith but had heard numerous stories about him from my time hanging around Ralph Stanley. I had tickets to see him in July 1989 at Ponderosa Park in Salem Ohio. It was not to be.
The evening started with a video presentation of Keith, and then a great speech by Chris Keefe with wife Becky by his side. RCA record executive Joe Galante, who signed Keith to his record deal, then took the stage to reminisce. One of the highlights of his stories to me was Joe talking about taking Keith to a special event in New York shortly after his signing. He had asked Keith to bring his A game as it was a pretty important event. Joe recalled standing on the side of the stage while Keith was performing, and a hand grabbing his shoulder. He turned around and it was Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS. He told Joe, “I dont know a damn thing about country music, but this guy is it! I feel everything he is singing.” Emcees Lorrie Morgan and Bill Cody from WSM then took the stage to kick things off.
Wesley Dennis, writer of Keith’s song, Lady’s Choice, took the stage as the first performer. Carl Jackson then performed She’s Gone Gone Gone and also a song that he wrote about Keith and himself called Jesse and Me. He told the story of how the song came to be. Back when they were younger, they both had big dreams of one day moving to Nashville and making it big. He recalled that Glen Campbell had a nickname for Carl, who called him Rebel. After a visit to a bluegrass festival where Keith was performing with JD Crowe, Carl was visiting with Keith’s first wife Kathy, and he asked how Keith was doing. She proceeded to tell him that they had just gone to the movies earlier in the week to see a western, and that Keith now thinks he’s Jesse James. There is the inspiration for the song Jesse and Me. Kevin Denney joined Carl for the duet.
Kevin Denney performed followed by Chris Keefe’s son, Corey, who absolutely knocked it out of park with a Whitley song, Tennessee Courage. Tracy Lawrence and Tom Buller then sang. Caleb Daughtry took the stage with Charlotte’s in North Carolina, and Nobody In His Right Mind. Caleb called Chris Keefe up to help sing this one. Keith’s son, Jesse, then performed. Darryl Worley, Joe Diffie, Mark Wills, and Joe Nichols followed. Joe Nichols filled in for an ailing Mark Chesnutt.
Ricky Skaggs took the stage for a dedication to the bluegrass years with his first song being Dream Of A Miners Child, a song that he and Keith cut on the Second Generation album. He then grabbed the mandolin. One of the other highlights for me was Ricky explaining to us that the mandolin he was holding once belonged to Pee Wee Lambert, a mandolin player with The Stanley Brothers in the ’40s. He said Keith and him had laid in bed many nights listening to old Stanley Brothers records that were made with that exact mandolin. Ricky then called up Garth Brooks to help him with a duet. They performed the Carter Stanley original, We’ll Be Sweethearts In Heaven. Ricky called the song Sweetest Love by mistake. Never in a million years did I ever think I would hear Garth Brooks performing a Stanley Brothers song, but there it was! I told Chris later that night, I couldn’t believe that Garth ahd learned a Stanley Brothers song for the concert, he replied, he didn’t, he already knew it.
The stage was then set for performances from Garth and his wife Trisha Yearwood. Lorrie Morgan then joined the duo for A Picture of Me Without You. The night ended with all the performers getting on stage together to perform Kentucky Bluebird in memory of Keith.
The whole night was about nothing but Keith. There were no talks of his struggles or vices, just about the man who left us with some of the greatest music way to soon. Long live the life, legacy, and music of Jackie Keith Whitley.