Garth Brooks has been advocating for Keith Whitley’s membership into the Country Music Hall of Fame for years, so it was fitting that he did the honors during the Medallion Ceremony on Sunday night (Oct. 16) in Nashville.
After a moving acoustic performance of “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” Brooks spoke to Whitley’s family and the country music industry gathered to celebrate him, Jerry Lee Lewis and record label executive Joe Galante.
“For all country music fans, this night is long overdue,” Brooks began, needing a moment to push back his emotions.
His five-minute induction speech focused on an early belief that Whitley was “too country” for country radio. Brooks compared that to calling something “too good,” and that earned a knowing chuckle from the audience. Neither he nor the Hall ignored the ’80s hitmaker’s battle with alcohol or how he ultimately died.
“The fact that Keith Whitley was too country was a blessing for us. It was probably a curse for Keith,” Brooks shared. The “I’m No Stranger To the Rain” singer died in May 1989 from alcohol poisoning. His short career only produced five No. 1 hits, most released after his death. However, Brooks, the Hall of Fame and most longtime country fans recognize his massive influence on his contemporaries and the next generations.
“I’m in love with my wife and my wife has me convinced that she loves me,” the 60-year-old Brooks said, referring to Trisha Yearwood. “But when Keith Whitley does that ‘Ca-alls,’ (“I Never Go Around Mirrors”) when he drops that whole octave, that woman cannot remember my name.”
Ricky Skaggs, Molly Tuttle and Justin Moses paid tribute to Whitley with “Tennessee Blues” during the Medallion Ceremony. Mickey Guyton led the three-song set in his honor, with a version of “When You Say Nothing at All.” After her performance, she delicately moved to the front of the stage and bent down to give Whitley’s widow, Lorrie Morgan, a warm embrace.
Morgan would accept the medallion for the family and deliver her own emotional five-minute speech, during which she revealed that Whitley was three weeks away from becoming a Grand Ole Opry member when he died (and never knew it), that she fell in love with him after hearing “Miami, My Amy” on the radio and that Whitley struggled with self-doubt.
“He would have never expected this in his life,” she shared.
Brooks’ “too country” remarks were on the nose, and he’d add “too honest” to that list of ways to describe Keith Whitley. Referring to the song “10 Feet Away,” he said it’s “actual life put to music” before quieting the crowd with this truth:
“It was the reason why we loved him and probably the reason why we don’t have him anymore.”
Whitley’s children and older brother were also in attendance to see his Hall of Fame bust revealed. The Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony took place in the museum’s CMA Theater.