Music Monday: Keith Whitley

The Country Music Hall of Fame announced Keith Whitley as its newest inductee in the Modern Era Category.  The induction is well deserved and welcome, especially around here.  Keith Whitley’s music was enormously important at a hard time for me when I first discovered it in college.

Whitley was already in the Mullet Hall of Fame

My dad died in late March.  I started college a few months later.  It was a difficult, heady time.  It was a quick introduction to a lot of good music, as college tends to be.  I’ve written before about how important Chris LeDoux’s This Cowboy’s Hat was to me at the time.  Charlie Robison’s My Hometown is another one.  Keith Whitley has two songs on that list: I’m No Stranger to the Rain and Brotherly Love.

I’m No Stranger to the Rain is about hard times, not just external and uninvited but also self-brought.  I experience plenty of both in those days.  Whitley just hints at it—the song is wonderfully subtle—but his own role in his problems is suggested early:

I’m a friend of thunder

Friend, is it any wonder lightning strikes me?

I’ve fought with the devil

Got down on his level

The other Whitley song that meant so much to me at the time was Brotherly Love.  A lonely, grief-stricken man is a dangerous thing.  But I made the wise and largely accidently choice to join a fraternity, and the philias I found there really did save me.

I don’t care for the treacly official music video, so you won’t find it below.  Pairing it with I’m No Stranger to the Rain helps cut down on the saccharine as well.  Brotherly love is “a bond” that “gets stronger” and Whitley recognizes it as “something we all need,” but he has also been (per I’m No Stranger the Rain) “sacrificed by brothers.”  Brotherly love is necessary and immensely valuable; it isn’t costless.

I’m No Stranger to the Rain is made a deeper, more difficult work by the knowledge that Whitley would drink himself to death at only 34 just one year later.  I love the sheer cussedness of the song:

But I never gave in, so [the devil] gave up on me

I’m no stranger to the rain

But there’ll always be tomorrow

And I’ll beg, steal, or borrow a little sunshine

And I’ll put this cloud behind me

That’s how the man designed me

Sometimes sheer cussedness isn’t enough.  Whitley could have used a little more brotherly love. But it wasn’t a problem of availability.  His widow Lorrie Morgan loved him so much she spent decades pushing his legacy and his candidacy for the Hall of Fame.  He saw his brother-in-law the morning of his death and made plans to play golf later that day.  But Whitley was a lonesome drinker who hid much of his problem from his loved ones.  Of these two songs, he could have used a little more of one than the other, but he chose the wrong path.  I am second to no man in respect for sheer cussedness, but man is a social animal.  We have the greatest potential for sheer cussedness together.

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