He couldn’t have known it, but Keith Whitley was on his way to becoming a legend during the late 1980s resurgence of a more-traditional country music sound (though Whitley seldom wore a cowboy hat like many). Having worked with Ricky Skaggs in Ralph Stanley’s band as a teenager, Whitley had the voice and the chops for Nashville. The number-one title track from his 1988 album Don’t Close Your Eyes made him a bona fide country star, but he died of alcohol poisoning at 33 about a year after its release.
A song about a man’s request for his partner to forget a previous paramour and make love with her eyes open, “Don’t Close Your Eyes” has since become a slow-dance classic in every honky-tonk and roadside bar. It was written by Bob McDill, the Nashville songwriting giant whose songs were recorded by Waylon Jennings, Pam Tillis and many others. The song is an A-B-A-B-B, with the chorus repeating twice after the second verse, and the final two lines of that chorus repeating at the end of the song. This may have been the way it was originally written or may have been an arrangement decision by Whitley and his producer, Garth Fundis (Alabama, Trisha Yearwood). This chorus has become one of the best-known in country music:
Don’t close your eyes let it be me
Don’t pretend it’s him in some fantasy
Darling just once let yesterday go
And you’ll find more love than you’ve ever known
Just hold me tight when you love me tonight
And don’t close your eyes
The song would later be cut by Alan Jackson and, taking it from the female point of view, Kellie Pickler. Where most country singles from those days are now a fond memory, the “Don’t Close Your Eyes” single today is, almost inexplicably, one of that era’s strongest sellers digitally.
Thirty years after his death, Whitley is the subject of Still Rings True: The Enduring Voice of Keith Whitley, a new exhibit that opens next month at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of his death and the Hall of Fame presentation, stars like Garth Brooks and Tracy Lawrence will perform at a memorial concert for Whitley next month in Nashville as well. And it’s a pretty sure bet that someone will sing “Don’t Close Your Eyes.”
The lyric is universal in its appeal and is based on a sentiment that isn’t necessarily only country, even though the song is now a country standard. For something completely different, if you can find it: Jonathan Hay produced, as part of his 2016 Urban Hitchcock hip-hop compilation, a song called “Don’t Close Your Eyes (Ashamed),” a tribute to Whitley that interpolates Morgan McRae’s singing of Whitley’s song with original rapped lyrics about the effects of alcoholism from California hip-hop artist Kxng Crooked. You can still find this version of the song on YouTube, but the recording that once was available for streaming and sale seems pretty hard to come by online these days.