‘Go Rest High on That Mountain': The History of Country Music’s Go-To Funeral Song
After winning the 1996 CMA Song of the Year award for “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” Vince Gill, a usually talkative ambassador for country music, could only muster a few words. “It’s still too hard to speak about it,” Gill said during the broadcast. “Just thank you.”
Gill’s lack of words came after his deeply personal song earned one of several industry honors, a list that includes Grammy wins for Best Male Country Vocal Performance and Best Male Country Song. Despite barely cracking the Top 15, one of the best-aged country singles of the 1990s was instantly recognized by critics and insiders as a classic.
The story behind Gill’s emotional performance begins on May 9, 1989, when fellow bluegrass prodigy-turned-mainstream country singer Keith Whitley died suddenly at the age of 33. Gill started a song about the shortened life of a man haunted by alcoholism (Whitley, who struggled with alcohol addiction throughout his life, died of alcohol poisoning). Even with subject material as rich as Whitley’s passing, however, Gill felt unhappy with his early draft and shelved the idea.
Gill revisited "Go Rest High on That Mountain" after the 1993 death of his older half-brother, Bob Coen. In 1968, Coen suffered severe brain damage during a traffic accident; eleven years Gill’s senior, Coen was 22 years old at the time. Circumstances made Coen’s personal life and health turbulent for the final 25 years of his life, but sorrow over his troubled life and tragic death inspired Gill to finish his song.
"Go Rest High on That Mountain" appears on Gill's 1994 album When Love Finds You. The song, featuring Whitley’s dear friend Ricky Skaggs and country stars’ go-to collaborator Patty Loveless as guest vocalists, became the album’s sixth single on Aug. 28, 1995.
Since then, "Go Rest High on That Mountain" has become a popular choice for country artists and fans’ funerals. In fact, the most tender moment involving the song may have come at George Jones’ memorial service in 2013: Gill’s emotions over losing a mentor and friend kept the tenderhearted performer from finishing his duet with Loveless.
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