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KEITH WHITLEY: A TRIBUTE ALBUM

(BNA)

There's a poem by Thomas Lux written to the poet Frank Stanford, who committed suicide in 1978, that ends with the line "Frank, you dumb fucker,--who loves you / Loves you regardless." Country singer Keith Whitley wasn't a suicide per se, but he was an alcoholic. And on May 9, 1989, several weeks short of completing his landmark album I Wonder Do You Think of Me, he was found sprawled on the floor of his Nashville home, dead at 33 of an acute alcohol overdose. His blood alcohol level was 0.477 percent, more than four times the level that legally defines intoxication. Journalists often repeat that detail in layman's terms--it's the equivalent of drinking 20 shots of 100-proof liquor in under two hours. It was, by any definition, a brutal death.

And it would all just add up to another sensationalistic, pathetic footnote in celebrity self-abuse if not for the fact that it was the single worst event in contemporary country music history. The 1985 George Jones classic "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" was both a reflection on past country legends and a mournful inquiry about who could possibly carry on their impossible legacies. On a handful of tracks over his last two albums, Whitley filled those shoes and just as quickly was gone.

And what was I doing five springs ago? It's fuzzy, but I sure as hell wasn't wearing a black arm band over some dead drunk in Nashville. I came to know Keith Whitley only in death. I resisted listening to him for a long time in fact, turned off by what I believed was sentimental overkill and critical hype in the wake of his death. But everywhere I turned his name came up again and again, every country writer I respected paying homage to him. So I relented, bought his final album, and during a cursory first listen decided he was good, but not great.

Weeks later I gave the dead guy a second chance. During the second track, "Between an Old Memory and Me," I heard what everybody was talking about. Backed by a warm, light countrypolitan arrangement, Whitley turned this drinking song into a lament direct from purgatory: "I'm not hurting anybody / As far as I can see." Listening to this song was actually a somewhat est-like experience, where I finally got "it." And just like the blubbering Bubba who shot the jukebox because it played a sad song, I cried. Discovering Whitley was terrible, really; there was the thrill of hearing the greatest contemporary country singer for the first time coupled with the sickening revelation that he was lost to me forever.

Being a Whitley compleatist is easy and ultimately depressing, especially since his essential work came only in the last two years of his life. Both 1988's Don't Close Your Eyes and 1989's I Wonder Do You Think of Me are flawed albums materialwise, but Whitley is flawless within them. There is not one wrong vocal note to be found, and not only in a technical sense. Bending, shifting, and attenuating his rich baritone, Whitley ascended to that rarefied atmosphere of meaning and emotion that few singers ever attain. But in the end he didn't hang around long enough to leave an inarguable body of work, didn't survive long enough to cement his legend in a "He Stopped Loving Her Today" sort of way. At nearly the exact moment of his artistic arrival, the absolute successor of Lefty Frizzell and George Jones self-imploded. Poised at the doorway of legend, he exited stage left, and became instead, to again borrow from Lux, "a bit of gold to pound back into the earth."

Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album is a shallow exhumation. There are several inferior cuts from the man himself, but most of the album consists of current country stars singing some of Whitley's best-known work. Alan Jackson, given the unenviable task of taking on the Bob McDill classic "Don't Close Your Eyes," wisely keeps to his understated style. Joe Diffie, Mark Chesnutt, and to a lesser degree Tracy Lawrence all give conservative, faithful-but-less-than-stunning versions on their respective tracks. Only bluegrass star Alison Krauss, in her aching, Dolly-esque soprano, brings to bear an original interpretation on her reading of "When You Say Nothing at All."

And where, one is left to wonder, are the voices that could have brought Whitley, if only briefly, back to life? George Jones, who hauled ass across Music City this year to sing with everybody from Keith Richards to Trisha Yearwood, is missing in action when it counts. And the shamefully underappreciated Vern Gosdin, who penned Whitley's tour de force "Tennessee Courage," apparently wasn't invited. But Whitley's widow, Lorrie Morgan, a country star in her own right and executive producer of this project, felt compelled to include the likes of Diamond Rio and the worst of the worst, one-dimensional country hunk Daron Norwood. Not content to butcher one of Whitley's signature songs, Norwood instead takes it upon himself to cowrite and sing a maudlin tribute that butchers his entire memory. "Little Boy Lost"--even the title is stunningly condescending--stands as the low point, challenged in its shallowness only by the inevitable all-star sing-along that closes the album.

And I actually listen to this crap, because when it comes to all things Whitley I'm obsessed, no more able to let go than any card-carrying member of this dead man's fan club. I listen to the duets after death, the treacly tributes, the inferior outtakes--namely, all the stuff that would never have seen the light of day had he lived. I rip open copies of other country artists' latest product and realize I'm looking for a new release by Whitley. Sadly, that's not on this or any future fall's roster.

In the end, I return to his last two bona fide albums, because frankly that's all that really matters. I look at his last cover photo, at the face of this Jesus-looking hillbilly, and accept it all, every last embarrassing bit of him: the Ramon of California perm, the manicured beard, the eyes caught flickering between cold sobriety and that final dive into the bottle. I always fixate on that goddamned title that hangs above his head. It's a question without a question mark: I Wonder Do You Think of Me. Carrying the torch of a lifetime and standing knee-deep in posthumous shit, I reply to that question with genuine heartbreak: Keith, you dumb fucker--who loves you loves you regardless.

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