The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
In Lorrie Morgan’s book, Forever Yours, Faithfully, she tells a story of how husband Keith Whitley’s song, “I’m No Stranger To The Rain,” was played at his funeral after the preacher read a story from Mark 4:37. It goes as follows:
“A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”
The minister at Whitley’s funeral remarked, “and you thought Keith Whitley was the first man to sing ‘I’m No Stranger To The Rain.’ ”
Whitley wasn’t Jesus Christ, but he was a special force in country music; a man whose own life was cut too short, stormy as the Sea Of Galilee was in that bible verse until his very end. His last single released while he was alive, “I’m No Stranger To The Rain,” is, in that sense, eerily prophetic – a declaration to persevere through the pain, an admirable quality, given how Whitley was poised for greater heights in country music.
That didn’t happen, though. In fact, one could interpret Whitley’s song quite literally if they read between the lines. He’s a reminder of those we lost far too soon in country music, like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. Plus, one could argue the timing was always off for Whitley’s place in country music. He sang well, but lacked the smoother polish Randy Travis had; he had a natural charm, but not one as pronounced as George Strait’s was; and because of that, he was never “cool” like Dwight Yoakam.
Where I’d argue he had all of those artists beat, however, is in natural soul and conviction – the ability to throw himself into a song and have it connect on the highest, rarest level. Though to reinforce the “timing” argument, while Whitley’s 1985 debut album L.A. To Miami was a hit, even he was frustrated at how it turned out. He’d later regret the smoother, polished sound of the album, and to add insult to injury, he also chose not to cut “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her” and “On The Other Hand,” which would later become hits for the aforementioned Strait and Travis, respectively.
If anything, though, one gets the feeling Whitley never would have viewed it as a competition anyway. His constant search for a “sound” as he battled alcoholism throughout his adult life reveals a dark, lonely picture that’s only more pronounced today. At age eight he appeared on singer Buddy Starcher’s television show in Charleston, West Virginia, and was working on local radio shows with his older brother, Dwight. At age 15 Whitley met another child prodigy at a talent show, Ricky Skaggs. Neither took home first prize, but they became friends and formed the bluegrass band Kentucky Mountain Boys soon afterward.
In 1970 Whitley and Skaggs were asked to fill in at a nightclub for Ralph Stanley, who was late to the show due to car trouble. When he walked in, he realized they were playing his songs better than he did, resulting in him hiring both teenagers on the spot to play for him. Whitley played guitar and handled some vocals; Skaggs played mandolin and handled vocals, too. Perhaps it’s ironic that both Whitley and Skaggs, known for reviving traditional sounds in country music in the ‘80s, would also play in banjo player J.D. Crowe’s progressive bluegrass New South band, though at different times (Skaggs first, then Whitley, who would take the New South in a more countrified direction).
Both would eventually find their way to Nashville, however. By September 1984, Whitley landed a contract with RCA Records and had a single, “Turn Me To Love,” featuring Patty Loveless on background vocals, on the country charts.
Whitley learned from past mistakes with the aforementioned Strait and Travis hits when he heard “When You Say Nothing At All,” which he refused to let slip away. Another fitting choice to showcase Whitley’s natural soul, given how the song is about taking that one moment to listen with one’s eyes instead of their ears. With that song’s success, RCA gave Whitley authorization to select a different producer for his Don’t Close Your Eyes album in the summer of 1988. He chose Garth Fundis, who produced Don Williams a few years back, and would eventually do the same for Garth Brooks. Of the ten songs that made that album, seven of Whitley’s performances were delivered on the first take, with limited overdubbing. He believed that the spontaneity of his live show wasn’t coming through on record, so he changed his recording process to match a sound that felt more natural to him.
Just as Whitley found his voice, tragedy struck. 1989 was an otherwise good year for country music, with the well-known “class of ‘89” all arriving to take country music by storm in their own unique ways. While not a new act by then, it should have been Whitley’s year, too. What makes his final single (not released posthumously, that is) resonate so deeply is the subtext beneath it. Very few outside Whitley’s inner circle knew of his affinity for alcohol, mostly because he preferred to drink alone. After his marriage to Lorrie Morgan, the birth of their son and his well-deserved rise in stardom, it was the year Whitley should have persevered, just as the song said. Instead, a song of hope rang more as a confession for him.
And he didn’t persevere. On May 9, 1989, Whitley was alone at home and, for whatever reason, started drinking heavily, consuming a heavy amount of liquor that quickly shut down his heart. It’s ironic that it’s always the tragedy we remember over the triumph, but Whitley didn’t prevail like some of the lucky ones. If anything, his career and end mirrored icon Lefty Frizzell a bit too well. Truthfully, it was all right there: Whitley told us himself that impending doom was a daily fixture in his life on “I’m No Stranger To The Rain.” The only remaining question we can’t answer even today is “why?”
I wish we could have, because natural soul like that isn’t something one can replace.