NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Keith Whitley, who battled a drinking problem while becoming one of the brightest young stars in country music, was found dead at his home here Tuesday of accidental acute alcohol poisoning, officials said. He was 33.
"This is an accidental death," Davidson County Medical Examiner Charles Harlan said after an autopsy. "Mr. Whitley died as a result of drinking alcohol."
Harlan said Whitley's blood alcohol content registered .47, nearly five times the legal definition of intoxication. Traces of cocaine and a Valium derivative were found in his urine.
"The drugs could have contributed to his death, but the alcohol level was high enough to produce his death by itself," Harlan said.
In an interview with UPI in 1988, Whitley acknowledged that he was fighting a drinking problem, and he said his family had a history of alcoholism. He said he believed that he had overcome the problem.
Whitley's body was found by his brother-in-law on the bed of the singer's home in suburban Goodlettsville, police said.
Whitley, a Kentucky native weaned on bluegrass music, became a star in country music in 1986 with the hit songs, "Miami, My Amy" and "Ten Feet Away."
His last two singles, "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" and "Don't Close Your Eyes," both reached No. 1 on the Billboard country chart.
He was married to country music singer Lori Morgan, the daughter of the late Grand Ole Opry star George Morgan. Whitley and Morgan had one child, Jesse Keith Whitley, who was born in 1987.
"Keith lived and loved his music," said Joe Galante, of RCA Records in Nashville. "All of us at RCA feel the loss of a special friend and talent."
Whitley, whose honky-tonk style and deep voice made him a classic country singer, took a 10-year detour through bluegrass music before moving to Nashville and signing with RCA.
Born in Sandy Hook, Ky., on July 1, 1955, Whitley came from a family of musicians who played bluegrass and mountain music. As a child, he listened to his mother's collection of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and George Jones records, and those sounds influenced his own style.
"I don't remember ever not singing," Whitley said in a 1987 interview. "It's just as natural as breathing for me. Even when I was 3 or 4 years old, I'd go out riding in the car with mom and dad, and I already knew all the songs off mom's Hank Williams and George Jones records by heart. I remember just sitting in the back seat and singing them at the top of my lungs."
Whitley began playing the guitar at 6 and two years later was appearing on Buddy Starcher's radio show in Charleston, W. Va.
As a teen-ager, he and country music star Ricky Skaggs were members of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys.
Later Whitley joined the country-bluegrass group, J.D. Crowe and the New South, where his singing first attracted the attention of Nashville record producers.
"I don't remember ever not wanting to be a country singer," Whitley said. "Even as a little kid, that was my dream."