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There are certain things in life that take a degree of bravery. Skydiving, mountain climbing and deciding to record a tribute album. Some may take issue with that last one, but it’s true, recording covers of songs that are beloved by millions is always a risk. Often times tribute albums are done by a group of artists and I don’t think those take nearly as much courage as one solo artist putting out a tribute album alone. The focus is totally on them.
What if the artist you’re paying homage to happens to be Keith Whitley? In the country music universe, he’s upper-echelon, and any artist willing to record the songs that Whitley made popular, deserves my congratulations. That’s a big task and Curb Records artist, Dylan Scott took it on with his new EP, An Old Memory. Scott considers Whitley to be one of his musical heroes and a key inspiration for learning to play guitar and sing, so he didn’t take this project lightly. He used every possible means he could get his hands on to do the job right. Will it go over with the legions of Keith Whitley fans across the globe? That remains to be seen.
Photo courtesy of billboard.com
Covering Keith Whitley songs in a honky tonk, that’s one thing. Making an album of them is quite another. Certainly people are going to put you under a microscope when you’ve made a record of them. You have to be completely on your A-game, and there’s no question about it, Scott did his homework. An Old Memory was produced by Jim Ed Norman, Matt Alderman and Curt Gibbs and includes legendary studio musicians Carl Jackson, Biff Watson, Larry Paxton, Eddie Bayers and Mac McAnally. The album was recorded at the Sound Emporium where many of Whitley’s songs were also recorded.
Also adding extra special touches to the record were Jesse Keith Whitley, Whitley’s son, who provided vocals on “I’m Over You” and Scott’s father, Scotty, who played guitar on “When You Say Nothing At All”. Perhaps the icing on the cake, however, was Lorrie Morgan joining Scott on vocals for “Tell Lorrie I Love Her”. Morgan was married to Whitley at the time of his death.
Photo courtesy of Lorrie Morgan Facebook
Drummer Eddie Bayers remarked that it was so special to see Scott in the exact same spot in the studio that Whitley was years ago. While at Sound Emporium, Scott was going through old recording logs and found out that Whitley was actually in the very same space, the same week in April, just prior to his death.
Maybe it’s just Nashville, but Keith Whitley is about as close to country music sainthood as it gets. He’s right up there with all the greats. Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, the ones who don’t seem to have any sins, and if they did have any, they’ve all been forgiven. Rolling Stone ranked Keith Whitley at number 51 in their 100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time list. That’s not bad at all. In fact, when I looked at the complete list, I was surprised at some of the names he beat out. Whitley is held in high regard. Scott was definitely a brave man to choose this artist for a cover album.
What did I think of the record? I made my decisions carefully. First, I listened to Whitley’s versions of the songs over and over again. I knew just about every one of those songs, but I never listened to them that closely before. There’s something to be said for listening to a song so hard that you almost feel like you were in the studio when it was recorded. I should do that more often. To be fair, I did give Scott’s versions the same careful attention.
An Old Memory has seven tracks and it starts off with “Don’t Close Your Eyes” (Bob McDill). Keith Whitley released his version in March of 1988. It turned out to be a giant hit, reaching number one on the Billboard US Hot Country Songs chart the week of August 13, 1988, and was also named Billboard’s number one Hot Country Single of the Year for 1988.
Video courtesy of KeithWhitleyVEVO and YouTube
Whitley’s soft vocals against the delicate sounds of the guitar and piano are what make it work for me. It’s a quiet plea, yet the message comes out clear as a bell. There’s no doubt in the world why this song did so well on the charts and why it’s so well loved by fans.
Dylan Scott’s voice is a sharp contrast to Whitley’s. Scott has a deep, southern drawl when he sings. Whitley has a more reserved hint of the south in his vocals. It’s there for sure, but it’s definitely more low key. It was so interesting to hear Scott cover his songs. It was like night and day.
I feel like this song is so familiar and so well-known that I don’t have to explain what it’s about, and I know that’s making an assumption which isn’t usually wise. I’ll just say that Scott’s cover of “Don’t Close Your Eyes” feels fuller, with richer-sounding instrumentation to accompany his deep vocals. Near the end of the song, I found myself actually envisioning Scott pleading with his woman as he sang the line, “don’t close your eyes”. You can’t beat that experience when listening to lyrics.
I’m spending more time on this song because let’s get real, Scott had big shoes to fill on this one. I think it’s vital that anyone who listens to these songs learn why Scott recorded them in the first place. The respect he has for Whitley as an artist and a personal influence really shines through on this track. If the listener knows how meaningful these songs are to Scott, I think they’ll enjoy them even more. Bottom line here is Scott’s version is impressive, but it will definitely be up against a tough jury. Whitley’s fans are among country music’s most devout.
The second track on the album is “I’m Over You” (Tim Nichols, Zack Turner). Keith Whitley’s version was released posthumously in January of 1990 as the third single off his I Wonder Do You Think of Me album. While Whitley’s voice is right where one expects it to be, to be perfectly honest, this tune kind of just lays there for me. I think it’s the melody that never grabs on. I’d be skipping over it on a playlist. I was so curious to see what Dylan Scott did with it.
I learned something about covers. No matter what you think of one version, you need to hear out another one. Dylan Scott took “I’m Over You” and turned it around for me. I love the musical arrangement, but more than that, I believe Scott’s lower voice sounds more convincing with the lyrics. Overall, the song translates well to Scott’s style. For sure this track was a score for Scott.
“When You Say Nothing At All” was a number one hit for Keith Whitley in 1988. It also came in at number 12 on CMT’s 100 Greatest Love Songs list in 2004. A song that’s lyrically moving, it describes the value of non-verbal communication in a relationship. The tune has been covered many times, most notably by Alison Krauss and Ronan Keating, making it recognizable across genres. Even non-country listeners have likely heard it if they aren’t completely familiar with it.
Video courtesy of KeithWhitleyVEVO and YouTube
This song seems to have been written especially for Keith Whitley to sing. His relaxed, patient way of singing conforms to every word perfectly. It’s the simplicity and what he doesn’t do that makes it exactly right. If Scott had big shoes to fill covering “Don’t Close Your Eyes”, he was about to scale a mountain with “When You Say Nothing At All”.
He nailed it. Sweet country strings and keys provide a gentle lift for Scott’s deeper-toned vocals. His lyrics are clear and that matters. Amazing cover.
Video courtesy of Dylan Scott and YouTube
If you believe in love at first sight, you’ll believe the story in “Ten Feet Away” (Billy Sherrill, Max D. Barnes, Troy Seals), a song about a musician and a woman who fall for each other while he’s playing in a club. Oddly enough, she’s sitting a mere “ten feet away” from him as he’s strumming his guitar and singing his songs. Another man tries to cut in and pick her up, but the deal’s already been sealed. These two have already locked eyes and nobody else has a chance.
The Whitley recording, released June 9, 1986, peaked at number nine on the Billboard US Hot Country Songs chart. It’s not exactly what I’d call a ballad, it’s more a mid-tempo story song. It’s nice. Whitley holds his own, but it’s another one that falls into the “skip over” pile for me.
Here’s where I have a big question. I swear that during Dylan Scott’s version of “Ten Feet Away”, he’s smiling while he’s singing. Don’t believe me? Listen to it. If smiling has a sound, you can hear it on this track. I not only enjoyed this version a lot more than Whitley’s, I adored it because of that smile I detected while he was singing the lyrics. There’s one line at the end where it’s especially prominent. Scott sings, “It was love…” and as he holds that last note, you can truly hear him smiling. Craziest thing ever. Crazy good. It’s hard to go up against a legend, and I know that was never Scott’s intention. He did this to honor Keith Whitley, but wow, I think even Whitley might say this was a win. I’d put it like this, Scott took an old song and refreshed it.
Hold on tight, it’s about to get rough. Track number 5 and I have never been the best of friends. Let me rephrase that. I have never been a big fan of the Keith Whitley song “Miami, My Amy”. I know it’s a huge favorite of country fans worldwide, I’m just not one of them.
I could never get past the title, which makes it very difficult to get by the chorus, since I have to hear the title in the chorus. Just being honest, it sounds corny to me. I know it’s supposed to be clever, but being a fan of a lot of Dean Dillon’s other work, I have a hard time understanding how this idea ever went anywhere when he had a hand in this. I’m glad it did. It’s been successful, but I guess you get my point. I’m just not that into it. I also find the melody to be rather bland. I’m all for Keith Whitley singing it, but I cringe knowing he’s going to say those corny lyrics, so I normally skip right on by it.
I took one for the team and listened to “Miami, My Amy” (Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran, Royce Porter) on repeat. I actually thought by doing that the song might grow on me. It didn’t. There was hope, however, that like a couple of the other Whitley songs I wasn’t all that fond of, the Scott cover might change my mind.
A little background on “Miami, My Amy”. It was released January 27, 1986 as a single off the L.A. to Miami album and made it to number 14 on the Billboard US Hot Country Songs chart. For a song that never hit that coveted number one spot, fans love it and it’s often requested in bars where bands are playing cover tunes.
As for Dylan Scott and “Miami, My Amy”, I think he took a song that I thought was dull and did a tremendous job of jazzing it up enough to make it less skippable. That said, the lyrics still kind of trigger me, but for those that love them, this version is vocally and musically well done.
For my money, it’s hard to top “Between An Old Memory and Me”. This Keith Whitley song was released posthumously in August of 1989. Whitley died May 9, 1989 from alcohol poisoning.
“Between An Old Memory and Me” is one of those songs that tells a sad tale of a relationship gone wrong and an attempt to drown all of its problems forever at the bottom of a bottle. No attempt to intervene will be accepted. Whitley brilliantly attaches his voice to the lyrics and convinces the listener that this is really his story. There’s nothing fancy going on, it’s all about the emotion. The musicians and Whitley seemed to be one unit when they recorded this. The story’s theme comes around often in country songs, but only once in a great while does one stand out like “Between An Old Memory and Me”.
I have to hand it to Dylan Scott. His voice, of course, has a much lower range, but he kept the feeling of the original intact. You hear a good deal of Scott’s southern twang in this song. What I love is how he almost whispers one of the lines. That was a nice touch. He did a commendable job on “Between An Old Memory and Me”, but happily, he lacked one thing that Whitley didn’t, and that was extremely serious personal demons.
A song Whitley recorded so near to the day he died is going to leave a mark. Add in the fact that this song takes place in a bar, where the man telling the story is trying to deal with, or escape from his problems by drinking, is almost eerie. Alcohol took Whitley from this Earth. No matter how many times this song is recorded in the future, no matter how beautifully, or how heartfelt, Keith Whitley’s name is etched all across it. The emotion you hear in his voice isn’t contrived. You feel it. That’s what makes the difference. Dylan Scott did a great service in honoring Whitley by covering this song and he was daring for doing it.
Video courtesy of Dylan Scott and YouTube
The last track on An Old Memory is actually a cover of a demo that Keith Whitley recorded before he passed away. “Tell Lorrie I Love Her” is a straight-from-the-heart message from Whitley to his wife, Lorrie Morgan. If you listen to Whitley’s version, it’s just what you would expect from a demo, it’s totally stripped down. Just Whitley and his guitar, singing, almost prayer-like, hoping that someone hears what he’s asking. It’s poetic, yet hauntingly foreshadows things that actually come to be.
The Scott cover, which features Lorrie Morgan on vocals is gorgeous. It, like the demo recording, is very simple. Not nearly as raw as the demo, but you can tell there was a concerted effort to stick to the basics and let the lyrics carry it. This track alone is worth buying the album.
It’s as if Keith Whitley is somehow being channeled through Dylan Scott and Whitley needed this song to be recorded in a studio and heard by the world. He needed someone with a voice as strong and true as Scott’s to sing these words. Someone young, who could sing them to the masses for years to come. Someone who feels a kinship with Whitley and Morgan and that somehow, Whitley feels too. Call it whatever you like, there’s no mistaking that Dylan Scott was the right person to record this album.
While Whitley and Scott may have different styles and their voices may be quite distinct, I believe that’s the beauty. A copy of Keith Whitley songs would be impossible and unwanted. This is a tribute. The cover versions still stay close enough to the originals as not to taint the sanctity of those songs that fans hold so dear, but are fresh enough to breathe new life into them. They give us reason to celebrate them all over again, and I bet Keith Whitley would approve of that.
Photo courtesy of Dylan Scott
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*Featured image courtesy of Dylan Scott