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KEITH WHITLEY: TIME IN A BOTTLE?

["Keith It's easy to understand why so many country fans, musicians, and critics call Keith Whitley a "legend." First, there's his voice. On late-'80s hits like "I'm over You" and "Talk to Me Texas," his deep timbre, easy delivery, and sensitive phrasing were such natural wonders, they made Randy Travis sound like a stuffed-up somnambulant by comparison. With another decade of performances like that, he might have ranked with George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Lefty Frizzell in Nashville's pantheon of golden throats.

Instead, he ended up in an even more exclusive and glorified sanctum. Five and a half years ago, at age 33, he drank himself to death and became the only rising country star in several generations to join "that stupid club." The lasting significance of this tragedy was demonstrated early last year by Alison Krauss's smash revival of Whitley's 1988 number one, "When You Say Nothing at All." So intense was the reaction to her hit, country DJs nationwide often mixed it on the air with Whitley's original to create a spontaneous necro-duet. When this trend reached the ears of Whitley's widow, country star Lorrie Morgan, she decided it was time to release a set of demos that Whitley had recorded for his song publisher. Not only were the songs unknown to the public, but they had the added attraction of being written or co-composed by the artist -- unusual, since all of Whitley's hits had been penned by others. After months of studio treatment, 10 of these reworked demos have been collected in Whitley's first full-fledged posthumous release, Wherever You Are Tonight (BNA).

The album is meant to offer a personal coda to the Whitley legend, a coda that at once revives and embellishes his memory (or, as the liner notes put it, gives us "cause to mourn and celebrate simultaneously"). But though there are some fine compositions and impressive bits of singing, Wherever You Are Tonight actually undercuts the legend in subtle ways. For one thing, many of the vocal tracks demonstrate that great singing isn't as natural as it seems. Whitley's best vocals sound supremely relaxed and instinctive; these demos show how much strength and precision it took to achieve that ease (and how skilled he was at hiding the effort). Although his voice here is clear and forthright, and his supple timbre always a pleasure to hear, it lacks the presence of finished work. He was only trying to set down the mood and melody of the songs; the hard work was supposed to come later.

Producers Steve Lindsey and Benny Quinn, however, are out to transform rough cuts into contemporary radio fare. To accomplish that, they've stripped away Whitley's original instrumentation and created arrangements for a nine-piece band, four backing vocalists, and a string section. Sometimes it works -- the honky-tonk weeper "I'm Not That Easy To Forget" sounds as good as any classic Whitley -- but just as often the big production threatens to swamp Whitley's casual style.

That disparity shows the difference between country now and a half-decade ago. Whitley was a quintessential neo-traditionalist; today, neo-trad's homy approach has been swept aside by the bigger pop sounds of crossover country. It's impossible to know whether these songs would have ever seen the light of a bar-code scanner had Whitley lived, but in their current odd incarnation -- one foot in the present, one in the past -- they create an irony that undercuts the legend again. Instead of bringing his ghost back to glowing life, they remind us that Whitley was another struggling mortal whose talent was fixed to a historical moment that's gone for good.

-- Franklin Soults


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