The Tragic Life & Death of Keith Whitley (Country History X)

photo: Michael Ochs

Welcome to Episode #5 of Country History X, which looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. This is story of the tragic life and death of Keith Whitley who died at the age of 34 due to alcohol abuse, and the conspiracy theories that surrounded it, told through the eyes of his widow Lorrie Morgan.

Editor’s notes:

Country History X primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.

Episode #1: The George Jones Drug Tapes
Episode #2: John Prine & The Perfect Country & Western Song
Episode #3: Charlie Rich BURNS John Denver
Episode #4: The Mafia, and the Toby Keith & Rascal Flatts Restaurants

Transcript

It was early May of 1989. Keith Whitley volunteered to take his wife and fellow performer Lorrie Morgan to the Nashville airport to see her off on a promotional trip she was taking to Alaska. In a week, Lorrie would be releasing her debut album on RCA Records called Leave The Light On. Though it was her debut release, Lorrie Morgan was already well-known and revered in country music, and had been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for half a decade. When Lorrie Morgan was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1984, she became the institution’s youngest-ever invited member.

Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan had been married for three years at that point, and they were one of country music’s emerging power couples. In a couple of weeks, Keith Whitley was scheduled to be asked to join the Grand Ole Opry himself, and was riding high off of his 3rd consecutive #1 single, “I’m No Stranger To The Rain,” which had topped the Billboard country charts three weeks prior. Before Lorrie Morgan left on her flight, Keith Whitley gave her a greeting card with a note in it. Little did Lorrie Morgan know how much the note would mean to her, and how poignant it would be when she opened it a week later. This is the story of the death of country music star Keith Whitley.

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After Keith Whitley saw Lorrie Morgan off at the Nashville airport on that late spring day in 1989, he began a weekend of heavy drinking. Though Whitley had cleaned up in 1987 after the death of his father and numerous close calls from drinking to excess, the sobriety only lasted about six months before he fell back off the wagon once again, which couldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Whitley had been battling alcoholism since he was a teenager. He was also used to flirting with danger.

During his teenage years, Whitley and his friends would sip on bottles of bootleg bourbon, and drive down the windy mountain roads of Kentucky at unsafe speeds. Once when riding passenger in a car and passing a bottle back and forth with the driver, they tried to take a sharp curve at 120 mph. The driver died, and Whitley almost broke his neck. It would be one of many close calls for Whitley, including driving his own car off a 120-foot cliff and into a frozen river, walking away that time with a broken collar bone, lucky to be alive. The whole family had a reckless streak. Keith’s brother Randy died in a motorcycle accident in 1983.

Keith Whitley told The Chicago Tribute once, quote “I learned to do things the way the old-timers did it. I thought everybody had to drink to be in this business. Lefty drank, Hank drank, George Jones was still drinking, and I had to. That’s just the way it was. You couldn’t put that soul in your singing if you weren’t about three sheets in the wind.” Unquote.

Born in Ashland, Kentucky and raised in the small town of Sandy Hook, Keith Whitley received his start in country music during high school as a member of Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass band The Clinch Mountain Boys, right beside long time friend Ricky Skaggs. Stanley discovered the boys when he blew a tire in Ft. Gay, West Virginia, and happened to walk into the club where they were playing. The bluegrass legend was blown away. When he heard the music playing from outside, Ralph Stanley though it was a jukebox playing an old Stanley Brothers record. Nope, it was Skaggs and Whitley. With the way Whitley was influenced by Carter Stanley in his singing style, it really helped to sell the two young scrappy musicians as the real deal. Keith Whitley was just 15-years-old at the time, and Ricky Skaggs was 16. Ralph Stanley recruited both of them for his band right then and there.

Ralph Stanley had a rule that he wouldn’t drink with any of the other members of the band, but he would drink with Keith Whitley. Stanley would say to him, quote, “You can handle it. I’m afraid to give it to the rest of these boys.” unquote. Though hired as a guitarist, it was Whitley’s singing that really made him stand out, and soon he was the lead vocalist for the Clinch Mountain Boys.

After cutting his teeth with Ralph Stanley, Keith Whitley would later join J.D. Crowe and his band The New South right about the time his boyhood friend Ricky Skaggs left J.D. to form a band with dobro player Jerry Douglas. Whitley replaced pioneering flat picking guitarist Tony Rice in The New South, and ended up pushing the band in a more country and electric direction. Keith carried his love for drink, and his close calls with self-destruction with him to the new endeavor. But just about the time everything would begin to unravel for Keith Whitley due to his drinking, he would hold it together just enough to pull through. Whitley released three successful albums with J.D. Crowe before moving to Nashville in 1983 where he would soon sign a record deal with RCA, in part due to the attention he’d earned in The New South, and the success Music Row was having with fellow Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs as an emerging solo artist.

Keith Whitley’s first major record was a 1984 EP called A Hard Act To Follow, and it didn’t fare too well. Released right before the neotraditional movement that would sweep country music in earnest on the backs of guys like Randy Travis and George Strait, A Hard Act To Follow was deemed to be too country. “Too country?” Whitley remarked at the time, “What business am I in?”

But the 1985 album L.A. to Miami, which took a bit more of a pragmatic approach put Keith Whitley on the map with songs like “Miami, My Amy,” “Ten Feet Away,” and “Hard Livin’.” Though the production of “Miami, My Amy” was much more contemporary, and the lyrics written by Hank Cochran and Dean Dillon were a little forced, it was the voice of Keith Whitley soaring from the song that spoke to many, and it soon became one of his signature tunes. Then Keith’s 1988 record Don’t Close Your Eyes set him on the path to downright superstardom, landing him his first #1 hit with the title track, which would set off a succession of five straight #1 songs from Whitley.

The hope was finding success would finally help to settle Keith Whitley down, at least to some extent, as would hopefully his marriage to Lorrie Morgan in 1986. The couple had a baby in June of 1987 named Jesse Keith Whitley, and Whitley also officially adopted Lorrie’s daughter from her first marriage. But with Lorrie Morgan out of town that first weekend of May, 1989, there was nobody there to look after Whitley, or his raging alcoholism. Lorrie Morgan knew the risks of entering a romantic relationship with Whitley. One of Keith’s managers, Don Light, had warned her early on after the two country entertainers had met at The Grand Ole Opry. But Whitley always treated Lorrie Morgan well. She insists to this day that Keith never said a negative word to her, or raised his voice at her during the entirety of their marriage. It was himself that Keith Whitley would regularly put in harm’s way.

Lorrie Morgan recalls, quote, “It was like a ticking timebomb. I knew all this going into the relationship. I thought as much as I loved Keith, surely that would help him. I feel in my own heart I kept Keith alive a lot longer because I was there all the time. I put everything on the back burner, including my career, to help Keith. Every time the phone would ring it was in the back of my mind that there was somebody calling to tell me he’s been in a wreck or died of alcohol. It was a living hell. I was on pins and needles when he was on the road.” unquote.

Lorrie Morgan was very much a daughter of country music, who would end up blossoming into a wife and a mother of the genre as well. Her father was Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry member George Morgan, one of country music’s classic crooners similar in style to Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves. Lorrie Morgan is a rare Nashville, Tennessee native in country, who grew up around the music, and in the wings of the Grand Ole Opry, making her first appearance on the show at the age of 13, singing the song “Paper Roses,” and receiving a standing ovation.

Morgan’s close affiliation with the Opry is how she became a member before she became a proper recording artist. Lorrie did record a succession of singles in 1979, including one as a posthumous duet with her father, and she recorded a couple of more singles in 1984 too, but nothing that fared well commercially. She was mostly a live performer early on, appearing on the Opry, and performing on tour opening for the likes of The Chieftones and Jack Greene, and singing backup for George Jones. It wasn’t until signing with RCA Records in 1988 that Lorrie’s recording career would commence in earnest, and right about the time she would be asked to endure arguably the greatest trial of her life.

On the morning of Tuesday, May 9th, 1989, Keith Whitley spoke to his mother briefly on the phone, and then was visited by his brother-in-law Lane Palmer at his home in Goodletsville, Tennessee, near Nashville. The two drank coffee together, and were planning to play a round of golf and have lunch that day. After that, Whitley was planning to write some songs to present to Lorrie Morgan after she returned from her promotional tour in Alaska for perhaps the two to record together as duets.

Brother-in-law Lane Palmer left Whitley’s Goodletsville residence at approximately 8:30 a.m., planning to return an hour later for the golf excursion. But when Palmer returned at about 11:30 a.m., he found Whitley fully clothed on his bed, unconscious and unresponsive. He called an ambulance, which took Whitley to a local hospital where Keith Whitley was pronounced dead. The country music community was left in shock. Keith Whitley was only 34 years old.

The next day, they lined Music Row in Nashville with black ribbons in remembrance. The death of Keith Whitley felt like the next chapter in country music’s history of some of its greatest stars passing on too early, from Hank Williams perishing in the back of his Cadillac on New Years Day 1953, to Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Cowboy Copas dying in a plane crash in 1963, or any number of other high profile deaths taking country stars during the height of their popularity. These events have allowed the timeline of country music to unfold like a tragedy, and have made folk heroes of some of its greatest stars, including Keith Whitley. He had so much to live for at the time. His career was taking off. He had a young child. Whitley was considered country music’s next superstar. He had just finished up his fourth studio album called I Wonder Do You Think of Me. He would die not knowing the Grand Ole Opry had a surprise invitation awaiting him just two weeks later.

The cause of death for Keith Whitley was officially ruled alcohol poisoning by local medical examiner Charles Harlan on May 10th—a day after Whitley’s death. The singer’s blood alcohol level was reported to be .47, or almost five times the amount to be declared intoxicated in Tennessee. Police had found 23 empty cans of Budweiser at his house, an empty bottle of Scope, and four half consumed bottles of hair spray. This was on top of the alcohol Keith was believed to have consumed the evening before. Small amounts of cocaine and Valium were also found in his system. The death of Keith Whitley seemed like an open and shut case. It didn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe a country music singer had drank himself to death, especially Keith Whitley. Once amid his sober streak in 1987, Whitley said in an interview, quote, ″It was a matter of life and death. If I hadn’t stopped drinking, I don’t think I’d be alive today. I did so many crazy things while drinking,” unquote.

But in the aftermath of Keith Whitley’s death, rumors swirled about the circumstances, some of which have continued to linger in popular lore to this day. As the Chicago Tribune and others reported at the time, “When his death was first discovered, there was a widespread rumor that it was a suicide.” A .47 alcohol level seemed exceptionally high, even for Keith Whitley. It’s the equivalent of 20 1-ounce shots of 100-proof whiskey.

Why would Keith Whitley drink himself to death when his career was just hitting its stride, and he had so much to live for? One theory was that Whitley was conflicted as a staunch traditionalist who was being asked to record more commercially viable material, or that he was feeling the pressure of stardom. Whitley recalled one time in 1986 hearing “Miami, My Amy” on the radio station WSM in Nashville. He said at the time, quote, ”I was drinking and wondering what I was going to do. And they played that song and announced I had been nominated for best new male vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. I didn’t even know it.” unquote. For sure, Whitley was struggling with stardom at the time to some extent, but that doesn’t take into consideration the severity of Keith’s drinking problem well before his country career took off in earnest.

The publishing of Keith Whitley’s autopsy report put most of the rumors to bed, though they would re-emerge in subsequent years. The medical examiner who wrote and performed the autopsy, Charles Harlan, would soon become widely discredited, and blamed for numerous false reports and other unethical practices. He left the medical examiners post in 1994 after three separate women accused him of sexual harassment. He was also known for making gruesome remarks to families and colleagues about deceased individuals, and reportedly kept body parts in jars around his office and home. In 2005, the State of Tennessee found Charles Harlan guilty of 20 counts of misconduct and permanently revoked his medical license.

Then in 2010, the accusations against Charles Harlan became even more severe, with the doctor being blamed for numerous botched autopsies resulting in false murder convictions, including a man convicted for stabbing and murdering his cousin, when the deceased died after having a seizure and falling on a glass table. Two children Charles Harlan had determined had died of SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, were later discovered to have been murdered by their parents. Charles Harlan had also been giving false testimony in trials for many years. Some fans of Keith Whitley and conspiracy theorists have used the discredited legacy of Charles Harlan to wonder just how accurate the autopsy of Keith Whitley was, and if another cause of death could be possible.

There have also been lingering questions about just how old Keith Whitley was when he passed. Though popular knowledge and much of the reporting on Keith Whitley’s death said that he was 33-years-old at the time and was born in 1955, this information supplied by his label RCA Records and printed in many reports and history books turns out to be false. According to his birth certificate and other documents, Keith Whitley was actually born on July 1st, 1954, making him 34-years-old at the time.

Another wrinkle to the story of Keith Whitley’s death were the revelations Lorrie Morgan made in her book, Forever Yours, Faithfully, published in 1997. In the book, Morgan goes into some fairly lurid details of Keith Whitley’s life and death, including accusations of infidelity, and how she couldn’t even trust Whitley around alcohol-based toiletries or beauty products due to his addiction, even having to tie his legs to hers at night so he wouldn’t sneak out of bed to drink, and how she would have to sometimes accompany him when he used the bathroom to make sure he wouldn’t guzzle something on the counter or beneath the sink. Remember, Keith Whitley was thought to have consumed an entire bottle of mouthwash and numerous bottles of hairspray for their alcohol contents on the day of his death. This speaks to the depths of Keith Whitley’s addiction.

Lorrie Morgan also called into question some of the specifics of how Keith Whitley was discovered on the day he died. She alleges that Whitley’s manager at the time, Jack McFadden, dropped by in between when brother-in-law Lane Palmer made his two visits, but McFadden was unable to get Keith to answer the locked bedroom door. Hearing rustling sounds inside, Jack McFadden didn’t show any grave concern, and ultimately left the house. Lorrie Morgan also alleges that Lane Palmer found a baggie of cocaine on Whitley’s dresser when he discovered Keith on the bed incapacitated, and swallowed it before authorities arrived. These revelations brought up questions if something more couldn’t have been done to save Keith Whitley, or something could have been done sooner, while also supplying fuel to the idea there was some sort of cover up surrounding Whitley’s death.

Lorrie Morgan also alluded to shadowy characters in Keith Whitley’s life, possibly drug dealers, and others that may have wanted to do Keith Whitley harm for one reason or another. All of this information only helped to fuel conspiracy theories about the circumstances surrounding Whitley’s passing. However, Lorrie Morgan and the Whitley family have never publicly disputed the finding that alcohol poisoning was ultimately responsible for Keith Whitley’s death. The conspiracy theories at the moment remain just that:conspiracies.

On May 12th, 1989, more than 500 mourners attended Keith Whitley’s funeral where long-time friend and fellow Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs presented the eulogy, and spoke specifically about the ills of drug and alcohol abuse. Keith Whitley was laid to rest at the Spring Hill Cemetery near Nashville later in the day. On his gravestone are two quotes, “Forever yours faithfully” and “His being was my reason.” They make reference to Lorrie Morgan, whose burial plot and headstone sit adjacent to Keith Whitley’s.

Without the burden of having to care for Keith Whitley, Lorrie Morgan’s career took off. She landed her first #1 with the song “Five Minutes” in 1990, and had ten Top #10 hits in subsequent years. Lorrie Morgan went onto marry country singer and songwriter Jon Randall and later Sammy Kershaw. She also dated actor and United States Senator Fred Thompson, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. But she has always remained loyal to Keith Whitley, and continues to be one of the biggest champions of his legacy, as does the couple’s son, Jesse Keith Whitley who has become a country performer in his own right.

The death of Keith Whitley also inspired rising country star Vince Gill to write the song “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which has since become one of the definitive eulogy ballads in the country music canon, and is regularly sung at the funerals of departed country stars, most notably a rendition Vince Gill performed at the funeral of George Jones in 2013. Ricky Skaggs, who Vince Gill had been in a band with in Kentucky in the late 70’s called Boone Creek, sang harmonies on the studio version of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” that was released in 1994.

It wasn’t just what Whitley accomplished before he passed away that left such a gaping hole in the heart of country music, it’s what many expected him to accomplish in the coming years. Posthumously, Whitley would score two #1 songs and four Top 15 singles, and there’s no reason to believe his output wouldn’t have continued to reign on the country charts had he lived. Speaking to individuals about the legacy of Keith Whitley, from country music historians to superstars such as Garth Brooks, they believe there wouldn’t have been the commercial resurgence in country music heading into the 90’s like the genre experienced—also known as the “Class of ’89” comprising Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Travis Tritt—if it wasn’t for Keith Whitley. It felt like a piece of that era was missing without Whitley around to participate.

When Garth Brooks was announced as an inductee into the country Music Hall of Fame in 2012, he tried to turn the honor down, feeling that Keith Whitley specifically, along with Randy Travis, should be inducted first. Garth said quote, “My generation’s shot at Haggard and Jones was Keith Whitley. Keith needs to be in here.” unquote.

After Lorrie Morgan received news of Keith Whitley’s death in May of 1989, and prepared to return to Nashville from her Alaskan promotional trip, she remembered the card Keith had given her at the airport the last time the two saw each other. In the card it said, quote,

Would you like to know what I wish for you?

If I could have any wish I wanted, this is my wish: That in your life which is so precious to me, may worries, troubles and problems never linger. May they only make you that much stronger, and able, and wise. May you rise each day with sunlight in your heart, success in your path, answers to your prayers, and that smile that I always love to see in your eyes.

I love you,

Keith.

Sources

The Chicago Tribune – “Whitley’s Last Days”

UPI – Lorrie Morgan Talks About Late Husband, Keith Whitley

Lorrie Morgan – Forever Yours, Faithfully: My Love Story

The Associated Press – “Odd behavior, mistakes finally catch up to Tennessee Medical Examiner”

ABC News – Are Dr.’s Botched Autopsies to Blame for Murder Convictions?

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