This past week (May 9th) marked the 23rd anniversary of the passing of Keith Whitley. Every time his honest voice is heard, people across the globe wonder why he had to leave us so early in life. He joined the likes of Hank Williams, Carter Stanley, and Jimmie Rodgers as great contributors to American music whose lives were cut short while their legacies were just beginning. To celebrate the life of Keith Whitley, I am going feature my favorite Keith Whitley album. While Sad Songs & Waltzes is not “bluegrass” album, it is one no bluegrass fan should be without.
Sad Songs & Waltzes does, however, have bluegrass roots. Originally recorded as Somewhere Between when Keith was a member of J.D. Crowe & the New South, the album got a makeover in 2000. Original producer, J.D. Crowe returned to the studio to oversee the remastering and remixing of the album. Adding new instrumentation, additional harmony vocals, and five previously unreleased tracks, this album became its own masterpiece.
At the time Keith recorded the original vocals, he and his voice were transforming from a bluegrass prodigy into a country superstar. A throwback to the honky-tonk sound of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell (with whom he is most often compared), Whitley was one of the earliest country singers to take part in the “new traditionalist” movement in the eighties and early nineties – as was then-former and now-current grasser Ricky Skaggs, with whom Whitley had worked as a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys.
Before Keith sings his first note, you know that this is country music the way it is supposed to be. A lonesome fiddle and a sobbing steel guitar start the album off on the right note. Keith’s signature sound is in full force for I Never Go Around Mirrors, an homage to Frizzell, who was one of Keith’s country heroes. It is country to the core. Keith demands your attention, and the song fits his sorrowful style to a tee.
Harmony vocals from Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley strengthen Keith’s sound. Dale Ann and Steve laid down additional harmony work for several of the tracks on Sad Songs & Waltzes, which I’m sure was a huge honor. (I know several artists who would consider losing a limb for the chance to be on a Keith Whitley record!)
Sad Songs & Waltzes includes songs from some of country music’s best: Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Tom T. Hall, Kix Brooks, Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson. It’s refreshing that the majority of songs chosen aren’t established standards, leaving more room for Keith to transform them into his own works of art.
The title track to the original 1982 album, Somewhere Between was written by the great Merle Haggard. The original was a duet by Merle and Bonnie Owens, and it is a very powerful song, as we’ve all come to expect from “The Hagg.” It is nearly impossible to listen to this track and not feel your heart sink. Here, the agony in Keith’s voice is indisputable. He ties your heartstrings in knots. Once again, Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley’s harmony vocals really bolster this track. The blending of Keith and Dale Ann’s voices is magical, and really makes you wish that Keith had lived long enough to record some duets with the reigning Female Vocalist of the Year for the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Another Town, written by Tom T. Hall, is definitely the most “grassy” of any of the tracks. I say this primarily because J.D. Crowe’s banjo is a driving force on this song. A fun, uptempo number, The Storyteller’s songwriting ability never ceases to amaze me. He writes songs that are simple enough that everyone can understand, yet deep enough that everyone can relate. While this song does not hold the same poignancy as Tom T classics like That’s How I Got To Memphis or Pay No Attention To Alice, it is still just as eloquently written, although it is more of a light-hearted affair. Keith delivers this sentiment perfectly. Steve Bryant’s bass and Kenny Malone’s drums matched with Crowe’s banjo push this tune right along. Carl Jackson’s harmony vocals are just icing on the cake.
According to the liner notes, Keith signed on with Rounder Records following his departure from The New South. He recorded four tracks with Don Grant, the last producer to work with Lefty Frizzell. Unheard for over fifteen years, they were released for the first time on Sad Songs & Waltzes. An eventual mega-hit for George Strait, Keith Whitley’s version of Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind? is one of these previously unreleased tracks. Many may be unaware that Keith was the first to record this now country standard. Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind? is country to the core as well! Although I am a George Strait fan myself, I prefer this version to King George’s. Keith brings a certain honesty to the song that surpasses Strait’s. The addition of Alison Krauss’s harmony vocals and Glen Duncan’s masterful fiddle work further separates this recording as the superior of the two. Sorry, George.
One of the highlights of the album is, without a doubt, Dance With Me Molly. One we’ve probably all heard, it is now viewed as a Keith Whitley classic. Dance With Me Molly tells the story of a man who is haunted by the memory of his former lover. Mental and emotional scarring have taken over this shell of a man who clings to the bottle for solace. Molly lives only in his mind and he refuses to accept the fact that she has left him for another. Keith’s tear-stained voice conveys the pitiful existence in which this man lives. I have listened to this song in the car sometimes and have literally wept. That is the power of Keith Whitley’s voice.
Another unreleased recording, meant for the Somewhere Between album but barely missed the cut, makes a triumphant entry as the title track: Sad Songs & Waltzes. A Willie Nelson song, it sounds as if it were written for Keith to sing on this album. Robert K. Oermann described this song’s importance in the updated liner notes for the 2000 release of Sad Songs & Waltzes.
“The lyric bemoans the fact that country music no longer acts wistfully, drips with sadness or touches the dark side of life. It is unfortunately true. And that is why we need to listen to a vocalist with this power no more than ever.”
This was true when the song was recorded in 1982, but it became more relevant in 2000, and is now painfully true in 2012. This album, compared to what is considered “country” music today, shows how far off the mark the music has fallen. Sad Songs & Waltzes doesn’t include shallow songs about hanging out with bikini-clad girls or playing beer pong. It is filled with deep, emotional songs about heartbreak which reveal the deeper, emotional aspects of what it means to be human. Keith understood this. He knew that the feeling which saturates real country music are universal feelings. The raw expression of human of emotion can never be triumphed, Keith Whitley’s timeless voice is a testament to that.
J.D. Crowe sheds some light on this.
“It seems like in order for singers like him to feel those songs, there has to be something dark inside. Every few years there’s a great singer who comes along who’s going to destroy himself. It’s sad. I thought so much of him. I loved him like a father. Keith Whitley was the total package as a singer, an entertainer. I wanted to do this album as a legacy for him. And I think the record speaks for itself.”
Crowe hit it right on the money. Keith is never better than on Sad Songs & Waltzes. Although it is a straight country album, all appreciators of fine music can appreciate the haunting voice of Keith Whitley. Matched with an all-star crew including such bluegrass stars as Alison Kruass, Steve Gulley, Glen Duncan, Jeff White, Carl Jackson, and Dale Ann Bradley, this is an album no collection should be without.
Sad Songs & Waltzes was released on Rounder Records (ROU-0399) and is available at the Classic Country Connection or County Sales. It can also be digitally downloaded via iTunes or Amazon MP3.