Thirty years have passed since the much-too-soon death of Keith Whitley, but his widow, Lorrie Morgan, says she still feels the country legend’s presence “all the time.”
What country fan can’t relate?
Indeed, Whitley’s spirit has been kept alive by a long succession of major artists who’ve been profoundly influenced by the groundbreaking Kentuckian, whose solo recording career spanned just five brief years before his death from alcohol poisoning in 1989 at the age of 33.
“Keith made an impact on everybody that he ever came in contact with,” says Morgan, 59, who had her own string of hits in the 1990s.
Now Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is celebrating Whitley’s significance in a brand-new exhibit, and last week, 20 artists — including Morgan and Hall of Famers Garth Brooks and Ricky Skaggs — paid tribute to Whitley at a memorial concert in a museum theater on the 30th anniversary of his death.
Brooks has made no secret he won’t rest until Whitley joins him in the Hall of Fame. In fact, the country king balked in 2012 when he learned he’d been voted into the hall before three of his greatest influences.
“I said, ‘Whitley’s not here,’” he recalled to PEOPLE in 2018. “‘ Travis is not here. Skaggs ain’t here. I don’t know what to do, because I’m embarrassed.’”
On Thursday night at the tribute concert in the museum’s CMA Theater, Brooks noted he was the one who’d “been lucky enough to induct” both Travis, in 2016, and Skaggs, in 2018, into the Hall of Fame during a ceremony in the same space.
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“There’s a name missing,” Brooks said before singing two of Whitley’s signature songs, “Miami, My Amy” and “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” “We all know what it is. We need to do it.”
Of course, Morgan, who married Whitley in 1986, wouldn’t disagree. “I always knew Keith would be a big, big pillar in country music,” she told PEOPLE before the concert, “and I knew Keith had staying power. It was in his blood. He was born to sing. He was born to let that voice ring out.”
Besides Brooks, many other country stars cite Whitley as a pivotal influence, including Brooks’ wife, Trisha Yearwood (who also sang at the memorial concert), Hall of Famer Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Chris Young, and Miranda Lambert
Whitley’s death inspired Vince Gill to write country classic “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” McGraw has often drawn attention to the fact he arrived in Nashville on the very day his hero died, and he credits Whitley’s unsuccessful battle with alcoholism as a factor in helping him beat his own addiction. Young has said that he signed with RCA Records, among other reasons, to be on the same label as Whitley.
The museum exhibit draws attention …read more