News Column

Town honors 25th anniversary of Keith Whitley's death

May 12, 2014

By Lana Bellamy, The Daily Independent, Ashland, Ky.

May 12--SANDY HOOK -- Friday's forecast may have predicted a damp evening in Elliott County, but folks living in Sandy Hook were not discouraged by it. Instead, the weather served as a worthy reminder of a late Elliott County native who is no stranger to the rain.

"It wouldn't be a Whitley concert without a little rain," Jesse Keith Whitley, son of the late Keith Whitley, said prior to the show. "It was like Dad came through to say, 'Hi,' and then left us with a beautiful evening for the show."

For Whitley, May 9 holds a special place in his heart. Not only did he make his Grand Ole Opry debut one year ago on that day, but it is also the anniversary of his dad's death.

Country music legend and east Kentucky native Keith Whitley passed away on May 9, 1989. Now, his son along with the tight-knit Sandy Hook community want to pay tribute to him by reviving the homecoming concerts Whitley hosted until his untimely death.

"What better way to play in my dad's memory than to have my buddies come with me back to Sandy Hook?" Whitley said.

Special guests for the night included two of Whitley's close friends from Nashville: Bryan Moffitt and Stephen Cochran, a Pikeville native whose friendship with Whitley dates back to their childhood.

Whitley currently lives in Nashville, near his mother Lorrie Morgan. He brought his son, Jackie Keith "Tuff" Whitley to Sandy Hook for Friday's festivities.

"He's still a baby, so he doesn't understand what's going on right now," Cochran said about Tuff and the significance of the homecoming event. "But hopefully, we can continue this homecoming revival so that one day he will."

Event organizer Keshia Skaggs said making the May 9 shows annual is exactly what they want to do. With the amount of success the 2014 revival experienced, Skaggs said she is excited to keep the tradition alive.

Keith Whitley performed his first homecoming concert at Elliott County High School, but according to his oldest living brother Dwight Whitley, the auditorium was too small for the crowd. Whitley then moved the concerts to the field behind Lakeside Elementary School and had three more shows. Each show was traditionally on Labor Day weekend. He passed away in May just prior to his show in 1989.

Skaggs brought the show back to these fields 25 years later. It may not have been a homecoming show for Keith Whitley, but it was for Jesse.

"I'm just so humbled by the amount of people who showed up today," he said as people continued to file in. "I have so much love for Sandy Hook."

The bleachers were packed and the surrounding areas flooded with people in fold-out chairs. Latecomers had to stand, and cars were parked anywhere they could fit around the school. Skaggs said they bought 500 arm bands for admission, but they were all gone before the event started. She estimated more than 1,200 came out to pay tribute to Keith Whitley.

"This is a big, big deal for Sandy Hook," she said. People from as far away as Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina attended the show.

Longtime family friend of the Whitleys Brenda Brown and friend Carol Michael traveled to Sandy Hook from Campbell County.

"This is a wonderful tribute to him (Keith Whitley) and his son," Brown said.

Dwight Whitley, uncle to Jesse Keith Whitley, said he also felt encouraged by the outpouring of support Sandy Hook showed his nephew and brother that night.

He said he recorded an album of his own as a tribute to his brother, so seeing his nephew also pay tribute to Keith Whitley inevitably stirred up some emotions.

"Seeing Jesse follow in his dad's footsteps means a whole lot to me," he said.

During the show, Whitley played a conglomeration of songs written by his dad, some he has recorded in his solo-career and some brand new songs that "haven't been written yet" that will be part of his new album, titled "Southern Man," which he revealed exclusively to The Independent on Friday.

Funds raised at the homecoming revival will go to the Elliott County Tobacco Festival, sponsors for the concert.

LANA BELLAMY can be reached at or (606) 326-2653.


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Source: Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)