Kentucky Bluebird

  • Some voices come and go like a tornado; they blow in with a whirlwind and before you know it all that’s left is a memory of their having been there. Over time things go back to normal but everyone that saw it knows things will never be the same again.

That’s what happened when Keith Whitley came along. The voice of a generation; a pure country singer with a pedigree in bluegrass that put everything he felt into his music. The Kentucky Bluebird, he was a teenage friend of Ricky Skaggs and the lead singer in legendary bluegrass bands, the members of which always knew he couldn’t be contained.

Like so many before him, he was a complicated man whose battles with his demons is part of what made his music so profound. When he sang, “I’ve fought with the devil, got down on his level”, you believe every word. Plenty of folks sing about heartbreak and struggles, but few could make you believe it like Keith Whitley could.

I was just a baby when he was making music, and only four when he passed away, but I’ve spent most of my life living in a country music world that shifted in its axis because of him. Growing up in his shadow, it’s hard to imagine someone with so much influence only released two albums in his solo career; it’s heartbreaking to wonder what could have been.

Like Hank Williams before him, we’ll never know what music he had left in him. We’ll take what little bit of music he left us and visit it over and over again like an old familiar friend.

On May 9 he will have been gone from this earth longer than he was on it. Faron Young sang “I wanna live fast, love hard, die young…” and like so many of his heroes, Keith Whitley did just that. He died at 34 from alcohol poisoning, just weeks before being invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. A star that shine so bright and then faded from the sky.

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