Jesse Keith Whitley
Another Family Tradition
By: Bill Lord
I would have to say that it’s my belief that no other genre of entertainment produces as many family acts and family members following the footsteps of their famous predecessors as country, bluegrass and southern gospel music. It just has to be a southern thing to value and even emulate the culture and traditions of your predecessors. I mean even among these groups, albeit they are dominated by southern acts, entertainers from the south seem to have the highest instance of folks going into the family business.
I recently had the honor to meet and be entertained by one such young man who I can assure you has a name and a heritage that you will be familiar with. I am truly surprised that he has not already received the same kind of press and attention that Hank Jr. got when he arrived on the scene, although I am sure in a way he is not terribly unhappy about that. Often times the shadow cast by even one famous parent is enough to obscure the small flame of a new act trying to find their own identity but can you imagine trying to fight your way through the thick fog of two Country Music Icon’s and a Country Music legend with roots in the Opry that go back to 1948?
Jesse Keith Whitley is the offspring of Country legends Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan and the grandson of Opry great George Morgan. His lineage is undeniably one of the best ever produced in County Music. The musical influences of his family in Nashville go back nearly 60 years with his grandfather George Morgan joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1948. George was much more influential in modern country music than realized by many and brought a different sound to the Opry with a voice like soft velvet. Along with Eddie Arnold, George would help pave the way for what would eventually become the “Nashville Sound”. When the Grand Ole Opry made its move from downtown Nashville to the Opryland complex in 1974 George Morgan was the last member of the Opry to sing on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium and the first to sing on the stage of the new Opry house. George would die prematurely in 1975 from a massive heart attack following open heart surgery.
George’s daughter and Jesse’s mother, Lorrie Morgan, born Loretta Lynn Morgan, made her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 13 singing “Paper Roses”. When her father died in 1975 then 16 year old Lorrie took over his band and began touring. She would eventually become the featured singer on Ralph Emery’s morning TV show on WSM-TV and in 1984 at the age of 25 would become the youngest act to ever join the Grand Ole Opry. Lorrie toured as George Jones’ duet partner for two years and had her first number one hit in 1990 with “Five Minutes”. In the years to come Lorrie would go on to put countless records in the country charts and her fans would vote her “Female Vocalist of the Year” 4 times between 1994 and 1998 in TNN’s Music City News Awards. Lorrie, as beautiful and vibrant as ever, continues to tour and record as a country music mainstay.
Raised in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, Keith Whitley began his career as a featured vocalist in Bluegrass icons Ralph and Carter Stanley’s band. While playing in a contest in Ezel, Kentucky, Whitley met and befriended Ricky Skaggs. The two would go on to play together often and would eventually be discovered by Ralph and Carter Stanley in Ft. Gay, West Virginia while playing in a club there. Keith would move to Nashville in 1983 and soon established himself and earn a recording contact with RCA. His debut RCA project was released in 1984. Whitley would meet and marry Lorrie Morgan while touring to promote his “LA to Miami” album. Keith would die very prematurely in 1989 at age 34 but his music would live on and be loved by his fans for generations. His music style was so distinct and powerful that Keith continued to chart singles long after his unfortunate death and his influence can be heard in many artists today, most notably Jesse Keith Whitley.
There’s no doubt that Jesse, just two when his legendary father died, has a distinctly familiar stage presence and swagger. When he tackles one of his father’s songs it is magical and if you close your eyes you might be transported back to 1988. But to steal a famous line from a Keith Whitley mega-hit, don’t close your eyes” cause if you do you will miss one of the best performances you are likely to ever see. Make no mistake about it, just like Hank Jr. cut his own path in country music, this young man is not just an imitator of the past but brings a whole new perspective to the famous name. Although he most definitely has a lot of very similar vocal tones to his father this artist is truly an original. His sound is all his own and his music has a certain edge and a little more outlaw spirit than that of any of his predecessors. His stage energy and excitement are completely modern country. Jesse opts for jeans, T-shirts, boots and ball caps as his stage attire giving him a natural “country boy” look which by the way is completely authentic. You will never meet a nicer or more genuine guy. (Cudo’s here to Lorrie)
Jesse has yet to land that major label recording deal which is truly one of those things that make you say “Hmm”. I gotta tell you, after 20 years in this town and seeing so many “put on” cowboys with mediocre voices advanced by Music Row, I can’t help but wonder what the hell they are thinking over there. This guy is the real deal, completely today’s country in his presence and appeal but with roots rooted deep in the traditions and culture that made and make Nashville Music City. Surely powers that be on the Row know that America is clamoring for something real on Country Radio and Jesse Keith Whitley is as real as it gets. Oh and while I’m at it, let me say to the producers of ABC’s hit show “Nashville”, you would greatly benefit from the authenticity a guest appearance by this talented and distinctive country artist would bring.
Jesse is working very hard to continue to hone his craft so pay attention because right now you can see him in the intimate settings of some of the smaller venues and listening rooms here in Nashville. He often plays out with another powerhouse real deal country singer, Eric Lee Beddingfied both backed by my friend bassist Chuck Jones. If you ever get a chance to catch these two guys in one show move heaven and earth to get there if you have to. You won’t be sorry! You better do it now while you can still get in. This young man is soon destined for full arenas and large stadiums.
Check out Jesse Keith Whitley’s website here for a listing of events and recordings available now. I love Jesse’s single’s “Kentucky Thunder” and I know you will too. Oh, and be sure to check out the video of Jesse singing “Tell Lorrie I Love Her” to his mom at the Hard Rock Café. It is a must see.
©Kris Crosby Lord
©Kris Crosby Lord
©Kris Crosby Lord
©Kris Crosby Lord