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26 Years Ago: Keith Whitley Dies

Keith Whitley death
Ebet Roberts / Redferns, Getty Images

Twenty-six years ago today (May 9, 1989) was one of the saddest days in the history of country music. It was on this day that Keith Whitley passed away. He was 34 years old.

The singer-songwriter was found dead in his home by his brother-in-law, Lane Palmer. Palmer had been with Whitley earlier that morning, when the two men had coffee and made plans for a day of golf and lunch. When Palmer returned later that morning, however, he found Whitley deceased in his bed. His blood alcohol level was .47, and his cause of death was determined to be alcohol poisoning.

The Kentucky native’s tragic death came as his career was soaring. Whitley’s last single before he passed away, “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” — from his Top 10 sophomore Don’t Close Your Eyes album — landed in the No. 1 spot on the charts only one month before he died.

Whitley was survived by his wife, Lorrie Morgan, and son Jessie, as well as a step-daughter, Morgan. The couple had been married less than three years when Whitley passed away, but his wife was acutely aware of his battle with alcohol.

“Keith was great for months at a time, and then for no reason at all, he’d start drinking,” Morgan recalls to People magazine. “Once he started, you literally had to tie him down or lock him up to make him quit. I tied my robe belt to my leg and to his ankle at night so I would know if he tried to get out of bed. Otherwise he would continue drinking until he passed out. I had to rush him to the emergency room several times in the past because he quit breathing; the paramedics always got to him in time.”

Morgan was in Alaska on a promotional tour at the time of Whitley’s death, which she admits still pains her.

“I live with that yoke of not being home when he died. I know if I had been, he would be alive,” she adds. “I begged my manager not to make me go, but he said I should.”

Whitley’s funeral was held in Madison, Tenn., just outside of Nashville. Ricky Skaggs sang at the service, with Ralph Emery and David Frizzell among the pall bearers.

Whitley’s death rocked the country music community, including his friend Vince Gill. Gill began writing “Go Rest High on That Mountain” after Whitley’s death and finished the tune four years later, when Gill’s brother passed away from a heart attack.

Three more Whitley studio albums were released after his death, including I Wonder Do You Think of Me, which came out only three months after his passing. That record spawned two No. 1 singles, including the title track.

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NEXT: Is Traditional Country Music Dead?

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