Saturday night, October 14th, 2023, was a special night at the Grand Ole Opry. Instead of presenting the regular Saturday night slate of performances, the Opry presented a tribute to country music legend Keith Whitley. Whitley’s widow, Lorrie Morgan, along with Whitley’s son and performer Jesse Keith Whitley, and Morgan Whitley were all there to celebrate the occasion.
Garth Brooks was also in attendance and performed in tribute to Whitley who Garth regularly cites as one of his primary influences. Garth Brooks also gives credit to Keith Whitley for planting the seed that helped sprout his career.
“I will say this: Garth Brooks would never be anywhere close to getting the life and the joy of singing I got if it wasn’t for Keith Whitley,” Garth said from the Opry stage, referring to himself in the 3rd person. “This guy is country music. So it’s an honor to be here today.“
Along with multiple performances of Keith Whitley songs, The Grand Ole Opry also bestowed Keith Whitley with an unprecedented honor, and one it has disallowed from other performers in the past: a ceremonial posthumous induction as a Grand Ole Opry member. The Grand Ole Opry presented Whitley’s survivors with a membership name plaque that will hang near the names of all of the other Grand Ole Opry members.
“As you guys know, the voice of Keith Whitley was silenced on May 9, 1989, just three weeks before he was supposed to become an official member of the Grand Ole Opry,” Garth Brooks said. “So this plaque is the plaque that you get when you become an Opry member. I’m very lucky to have one of these. It’s out there. The Opry house has decided in his recognition to put this out there with the other Opry members. Whether he got to be officially inducted or not, the fact of having Keith Whitley’s name out there among the rest will elevate the Grand Ole Opry and guys like me who have my name out there.”
The Keith Whitley plaque reads in part, “This plaque, a replica of those which recognize official Opry members in the Opry House Member Gallery, is presented in recognition that while Keith Whitley’s life may have ended before his dream of Opry membership was realized, his incredible influence endures on the Opry and country music worldwide. Grand Ole Opry October 14, 2023″
Mark Wills opened the Keith Whitley tribute by singing “I’m Gonna Hurt Her On The Radio,” and Garth Brooks finished the night out. But the tribute didn’t come with without a little bit of controversy. As opposed to finishing off the tribute with Keith Whitley songs, Garth finished the presentation singing his own material. This ruffled the feathers of some Whitley fans both attending in person and listening in via WSM.
That’s not the only controversy the night will stir. Though few will take issue with Keith Whitley’s posthumous ceremonial induction as a Grand Ole Opry member, this is the very same symbolic gesture that the family of Hank Williams and the long-standing Reinstate Hank movement has been asking the Opry to do for going on 20 years. Over this time, multiple Opry representatives have stated matter-of-factly that you cannot posthumously grace someone with an Opry induction, and that it would never happen. Now it has.
The Reinstate Hank online petition now has over 62,000 signatures on it, with even more signatures in the physical Reinstate Hank book that Hank’s grandson Hank Williams III would take around with him on tour. Hank’s grandchildren and performers Holly Williams and Hilary Williams have also signed it. Hank Williams Jr. has been spotted wearing Reinstate Hank T-shirts, and has also voiced support for the movement. Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Louvin, and other top country entertainers have signed it. If Reinstating Hank means nothing to anybody else, it means something to the Hank Williams family.
On September 17th, 2023, country music fans from around the world marked the Centennial of the birth of Hank Williams. The Country Music Hall of Fame held a special event marking the occasion, as did the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama with a ceremony and presentation at Hank’s grave. Other events were held in venues all around the world.
The Hank Williams Centennial seemed like the perfect opportunity to ceremoniously Reinstate Hank back into the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry did mention Hank on the Saturday night presentation the night before September 17th, with Charlie McCoy performing a Hank Williams song and grandson Sam Williams performing his new version of the Hank song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Hank Williams was kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry for drunkeness and missing rehearsals in 1952. The Opry promised that if Hank could clean up his act, it would welcome him back with open arms. But of course, Hank Williams never got that opportunity. He passed away in the back of his Cadillac on New Years Day, 1953.
The situation is eerily similar to Keith Whitley who was scheduled to become a Grand Ole Opry member just three weeks after he died of alcohol poisoning.
None of this should sully the honor that Keith Whitley has received. It underscores how often a pint of honey goes farther than a pound of flesh, with Lorrie Morgan, Jesse Keith Whitley and others working towards this honor with respect and reverence towards the Grand Ole Opry, while Hank Williams III took a more aggressive route. As some have also pointed out, Hank Williams already does have a name placard at the Opry as a previous member.
Either way, the ceremonial induction of Keith Whitley as a posthumous Grand Ole Opry member creates a stark dilemma for the institution and the continued questions about how it has handled the legacy of a man that arguably did more for the Grand Ole Opry than any performer: The Hillbilly Shakespeare, Hank Williams.