Paying a Visit to Keith Whitley

Hunting for the gravestones of country legends can be one of the most fulfilling enterprises for dedicated country music fans. It’s a way to get filled with the country music Holy Ghost, and gives you an opportunity to pay your respects to some of the titans who are responsible for the music we all love today.

In this pursuit, one of the easiest and most lucrative stops is the Spring Hill Cemetery on Gallatin Pike in northern Nashville, not too far from the Grand Ole Opry. Right there at the very front of the massive cemetery is the grave of the man who was originally called the King of Country Music, Roy Acuff, right beside the Queen of Country Music, Kitty Wells, with husband Johnnie Wright right beside her. Just across the way in a portion of the cemetery dedicated to veterans is Jimmy Martin, also known to many as the King of Bluegrass. That puts a lot of country music royalty all in one place.

That’s not to mention that in the same portion of the Spring Hill Cemetery is the final resting place of one of the Kings of the banjo, Earl Scruggs, along with Hank Snow, who is arguably the most successful Canadian in country music of the classic artists, as well as a memorial to the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, with numerous Monroe relatives buried there. Bill himself is buried in Rosine, KY.

But with all the headstone points you can easily rack up visiting Spring Hill with little hunting or effort to undertake, you can almost overlook that much deeper in the cemetery is the final resting place of Keith Whitley. Though I had visited Spring Hill before, I either did not know Keith Whitley was buried there, or maybe it just didn’t mean as much to me as the other country legends, or that it does now that the legacy of Keith Whitley has only grown in importance over time.

This year, Keith Whitley was officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A supplemental little granite plaque was placed just in front of his gravestone to commemorate this achievement. Just like so many country legends, Keith Whitley will eventually be joined by his side by his widow, Lorrie Morgan, who has been instrumental in keeping the legacy of Keith Whitley alive, and specifically to getting him into the Hall of Fame. Their son Jesse Keith Whitley has also been a big part of that movement.

Along these lines, in July an effort was launched to raise funds to build Keith Whitley a proper memorial at the Spring Hill Cemetery, similar to the ones Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, and Bill Monroe enjoy. This is what alerted me to the omission of Keith Whitley on my list of graves visited, and respects paid. And even better, unlike all the easy Spring Hill memorials to locate, Keith Whitley would be more of a challenge to find, which is half the fun of grave hunting.

In truth, it wasn’t as hard as I was hoping it would be to find Keith, not just due to the grave being right near the nexus of three roads in the cemetery that point you right to it, but also due to the fact that in a sea of grey and rose granite headstones in that portion of the cemetery, Keith Whitley’s marker is made of a shimmering white marble, making it stand out in relief.

Standing in the presence of Keith Whitley, what comes to mind is the tragedy that was his life, but the influence that was left in his wake. Unlike the other country legends interred at Spring Hill, Whitley didn’t amass a huge catalog of albums and songs. But what fascinates us about him is that we all know he could have if his life hadn’t been cut short at the age of 34.

Nonetheless, without the work Keith Whitley did do, there may have never been a “Class of ’89” with Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt. This is the reason that when Garth Brooks was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he first tried to cede the honor to Keith Whitley, and later said that if he was in, Whitley should be in too. That’s not to mention the time Whitley did playing with legends like Ralph Stanley and JD Crowe before he became a solo artist.

There are a lot of legends buried at the Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville. Billy Walker and John Hartford also have their final resting places there too—the later I couldn’t find before the sun began to set. But Keith Whitley is the one you shouldn’t forget among all the other towering figures of the Spring Hill garden.

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Keith Whitley’s grave is located at:

Spring Hill Cemetery
5110 Gallatin Pike,
Nashville, Tennessee 37216

As you enter the Spring Hill Cemetery, the bulk of the country music graves are in the very first section ahead of you called “Hill Crest Garden.” Jimmy Martin’s grave is just over your right shoulder (southwest) in the “Veteran’s II” section. The memorials are large, and can’t be missed.

To locate Keith Whitley, pull into Spring Hill from Gallatin Pike, take a left, then take the second right like you’re going to the cemetery office. Follow this path past the Masonic section on your left (clearly marked), until the road dead ends into another road. Right in front of you where the road dead ends is the “Crestview” section of the cemetery where Keith Whitley is (see image below). There is a large tree, and he is just to the right of it. It is the only white headstone in the area.

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