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Honky-Tonk Hollering Saves a Career : Whitley Climbed Back on Country Wagon, and Stayed on in More Ways Than One

Keith Whitley remembers the moment when he learned that Billboard magazine had named his “Don’t Close Your Eyes” as the No. 1 country single of the year:

“We were on our way back home from a road trip, and we were just outside Nashville when the phone on the bus rang. When I heard the news, I just started hollering. We knew we had a chance, because we’d had the same thing happen with ‘Radio and Records.’ But it’s still so hard to believe.”

Especially hard, considering that just 3 years ago Whitley was releasing middle-of-the-road singles and wrestling with an alcohol problem. For this former member of J.D. Crowe and the New South, it’s been a long struggle to find a place.

“We did the ‘L.A. to Miami’ album, with the song ‘Miami, My Amy,’ which really saved my life as far as confidence goes,” Whitley recalls. “It gave me a hit. But it wasn’t really what I was about--and I think deep down inside I knew it, even if I didn’t want to face it.

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“But we found while we were on the road that people would come up to us after the shows and say, ‘We really like it when you sing hard country stuff. You should do more of that!’ After a while, I began to get the idea.”

Though new traditionalism had been raging throughout country music for 3 years, Whitley did not start recording honky-tonk songs until his most recent album. Maybe he didn’t want to look like he was jumping on a bandwagon--which is ironic, because next to Ricky Skaggs, no one can claim country credentials as honest and pure as Whitley’s.

“I got into bluegrass music when I was 14, as a way to get into a band,” he recalled, talking by phone from Nashville. “My brother and I had a band and our own radio show, and that’s what was popular. But we’d also grown up listening to all those honky-tonk songs, and we loved them too.”

It wasn’t long before teen-ager Whitley was tapped to play with Ralph Stanley’s highly acclaimed bluegrass band. Though he treasured that experience, Whitley found himself wanting more. “As happy as I was with Ralph, it didn’t take long for the new to wear off,” he says. “I’d started to accumulate all these things that I wanted to do.”

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He left Stanley and joined J.D. Crowe, and his merging of country and bluegrass began. “Crowe himself was always a big fan of real traditional music, even though he was always a great bluegrass player. When I was with him, he encouraged me to stretch out.”

But commercial success was proving elusive, and soon the young man with the aching voice found himself trapped in a cycle: His frustrations led him to drink more, and the more he drank, the more his music suffered.

“I never got my head clear enough to really do my best,” he says. “I was an absolute mess.”

It took years of trying to “live out my songs” for him to realize that he was on a dead-end street, but he finally climbed back to sobriety. And things have been better ever since, commercially as well as personally. Even as “Don’t Close Your Eyes” was being honored by Billboard, “When You Say Nothing at All” was making its own way to the top of the chart.

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“It’s funny,” Whitley says, “but no matter how good an artist is, it’s not until he stands on his own two feet and sticks to his guns that things are going to come together.

“Right now, I know exactly who I am and what I want to do: I want to keep making music that sounds good to me and that I believe in. When we made this record, we never said, ‘Yeah, that sounds commercial . . . ,’ and I like doing things that way. And now, it looks like it works.”

Keith Whitley opens for Earl Thomas Conley tonight at 7 and 10 p.m. at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. Tickets: $25. Information: (714) 549-1512.


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