Keith Whitley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Music Exec Joe Galante to Enter Country Music Hall of Fame

Whitley's widow, Lorrie Morgan, celebrates the honor that arrives 33 years after his death: "He would be absolutely blown away if he were here today"

lorrie morgan
Joe Galante, Jerry Lee Lewis and Lorrie Morgan. Photo: John Russell/CMA

His career — and his life — were far too short, and the wait was arguably far too long, but Keith Whitley has finally taken his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The country legend's arrival to the genre's pinnacle was announced Tuesday in Nashville's Hall of Fame rotunda, where a plaque bearing his name and image will soon hang.

He's joined in the 2022 Hall of Fame class by rock 'n' roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis and recording executive Joe Galante.

Whitley died in 1989 at age 34 of alcohol poisoning, less than five years after his first entry onto the country chart. On Tuesday, his widow, country artist Lorrie Morgan, noted that he "never knew how good he was."

"He never accepted that he could have a great record deal, or he could have as much as anybody else had in this industry," Morgan said in accepting her husband's posthumous honor. "He would be absolutely blown away if he were here today. He would be saying that surely they got it wrong."

An abundant array of country artists would beg to differ. Those on the record as counting Whitley among their most significant musical influences include Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Alison Krauss, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Chris Young, Miranda Lambert, and perhaps the most vocal of all, Garth Brooks.

Keith Whitley 
Keith Whitley . Courtesy of Keith Whitley/CMA

In fact, the country king balked in 2012 when he learned he'd been voted into the Hall of Fame before three of his most pivotal heroes.

"I said, 'Whitley's not here,'" he recalled to PEOPLE in 2018. "'[Randy] Travis is not here. [Ricky] Skaggs ain't here. I don't know what to do, because I'm embarrassed.'"

Indeed, Whitley was among a rarefied group of artists — including Travis (Hall of Fame class of 2016) and Skaggs (class of 2018) — who together generated a neotraditional country wave in the 1980s. A Kentucky native, Whitley began his career in bluegrass, teaming with Skaggs when they were still in their teens. He arrived in Nashville in 1983 and, switching focus to country, he released a debut EP in 1984. His career gathered momentum with his 1985 album, L.A. to Miami, and then took off three years later with his next LP, which produced three No. 1s, "When You Say Nothing at All," "I'm No Stranger to the Rain," and title track "Don't Close Your Eyes."

"Keith was the master of all those inflections and vocal stylings of Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard and people like that," said country artist Darryl Worley, a Whitley admirer who was an invited guest at the announcement on Tuesday. "He brought a lot of the history and heritage with him, but he also represented a new country. He had to come along to validate it all and make us all go, oh, country's still country. There would've been something huge missing in all of this if there hadn't been a Keith Whitley."

His son, country artist Jesse Keith Whitley, added to the praise. "He's got the best sad songs and love songs ever," said the 34-year-old Whitley, who attended the announcement with his mother and sister, Morgan. "If you want a history lesson in country music, that's who you need to listen to."

Joe Galante, Jerry Lee Lewis and Lorrie Morgan
Joe Galante, Jerry Lee Lewis and Lorrie Morgan. Jason Kempin/Getty

Yet Whitley also had "demons" that propelled him on alcohol benders, Morgan explained to PEOPLE in 2019 at the opening of a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit honoring her late husband. Whitley died on May 9, 1989, while Morgan was traveling to a concert date — just three weeks before he was to be invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry.

Other honors still followed, including two CMA awards and a special ACM Icon Award. In 1994, a tribute album produced a top 5 hit for Krauss with "When You Say Nothing at All," which went on to win the 1995 CMA single of the year. Whitley's songs continue to be regularly covered in singing competitions and by big-name acts. In 2016, Brooks picked "Don't Close Your Eyes" to open his first show at country music's Mother Church, Ryman Auditorium.

Over the years, Morgan no doubt has been his biggest champion, singing his songs in her shows and reminding fans of his place among country's titans. On Tuesday, she told PEOPLE that her knees buckled when she was told, about a month ago, that Whitley would finally enter the Hall of Fame.

"Oh, I cried," she said. "I was in disbelief." The news, she added, prompted a visit to the Nashville cemetery where Whitley is buried, and she said she would be visiting again on Tuesday. As welcome as the honor is, she allowed, "it is bittersweet" — but at least now his legacy has been secured.

"I think of how excited he would be to be on that wall, to have a place in country music forever," she said. "This is not just a fly-by-night thing. This is forever."

lorrie morgan
Lorrie Morgan. John Russell/CMA

Whitley enters the hall as the 2022 class' "modern-era artist," while Jerry Lee Lewis will be inducted in the "veteran era artist" category, and Joe Galante will be in the "non-performer" category (which rotates with the musician and songwriter categories). Hall of Fame members Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks were tapped to announce the three new members, which brings the total number of honorees to 149.

Decked out in a red sequined jacket and white shoes, Lewis, 86, said he was "overwhelmed to be asked to be here" during brief remarks at the Tuesday event. "It's always great to be recognized," he added.

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn
Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn and Jerry Lee Lewis. Jason Kempin/Getty

Raised on country, blues and gospel music, Lewis began his trailblazing career in rockabilly, a rock-country hybrid that put his early singles on both the pop and country charts. Such 1950s hits as "Great Balls of Fire," "Breathless" and "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" are now considered among rock's most iconic songs, and his role in the genre's birth was rewarded in 1986 when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of its first class. He now joins a select group — which includes Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee and, soon, Dolly Parton — to be in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Lewis' music mostly made its home on the country chart, reaching No. 1 with "There Must Be More to Love Than This," "Would You Take Another Chance on Me" and a cover of "Chantilly Lace." Other hits included signature ballads "Middle Aged Crazy" and "Thirty Nine and Holding." In all, he placed 28 singles in country's Top 10, compared with only six singles in pop's Top 40.

Galante was honored for his leadership role for almost four decades at what is now Sony Music Nashville. Over various iterations — from RCA Nashville to BMG/Nashville to Sony BMG Nashville to Sony Music Nashville — Galante, as label head, was instrumental in the careers of such country luminaries as Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap, Parton, Alabama, Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill, The Judds, Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood and fellow inductee Whitley.

In his remarks, Galante, 72, said learning that he would become a Hall of Fame member left him speechless — "which was very unusual for me," he added. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around it, and I am truly humbled and honored. This is an unmatched honor, and I think it's a tribute to all those people that helped me get here."

Whitley, Lewis and Galante will be inducted during a fall ceremony in the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

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