Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Remembering Robert Whitstein

L-R: Charles Whitstein, Robert Whitstein, and host Porter Wagoner preparing for an interview on Opry Backstage, 1996

Category: News/Memorial

On November 14, 2001, the world of traditional country music lost one of its greatest performers in the death of Robert Whitstein at the age of 57. Sadly, the passing went unnoticed, partially because of the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, but mostly because his name was unknown in popular music circles. However, as part of the Whitstein Brothers, he carried the torch for brother duet harmony for over three decades.

Robert Whitstein was born March 16, 1944 in Colfax, Louisiana, the first of nine children to R.C. and Almarie Whitstein. The second son, Charles, was born 21 months later. Being the two oldest, they formed a bond. The bond was sealed in music, as both boys learned to play from their father, who was a local musician.

While still youngsters, Robert and Charles did a tribute album to the gospel songs of their idols, the Louvin Brothers (the album was eventually released on Rounder Records in 1994). The teenagers were in many ways an eerie clone of the Louvins, with Charles on mandolin and a tenor voice that even Charlie Louvin admitted later in life was “the closest to Ira I’ve ever heard.”

In the early 60s, the Whitstein Brothers, still teenagers, found themselves on the Grand Ole Opry, performing Harlan Howard’s song “The Everglades” (which they would later record on Trouble Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues). They performed as the Whitt Brothers during that time, touring through Louisiana with fellow native Faron Young. Things were looking bright for the duo.

Their career was put on hold when Robert received his draft notice. He joined the Marine Corps and spent two tours of duty in Vietnam. Charles likewise joined the Marines, but spent his time in the Marine Corps Reserve and never went overseas.

Family life also prevented the brothers from pursuing their musical dream. Charles and his wife, Ida, recorded a number of gospel albums for local church labels, and Robert and Charles continued to sing locally.

Finally their break came in 1982, when Jesse McReynolds of Jim & Jesse, who had become friends with Charles, passed a demo tape of the Whitstein Brothers to Rounder Records co-owner Ken Irwin while at a bluegrass festival. Irwin loved what he heard and signed the brothers to the label. Their first album, Rose of My Heart, was released in 1984. (The title track was covered by Whitstein Brothers fan Johnny Cash shortly before his death in 2003.) Trouble Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues followed in 1987. The Whitstein Brothers had nothing but glowing reviews (including the aforementioned comment by Charlie Louvin), yet they were in a musical no-man’s land: their music was certainly not “bluegrass” in the traditional sense of the term, it was more along the lines of 40s and early 50s country; however, there was no place for that in 1980s country music during the Urban Cowboy era.

In 1989, they released Old-Time Duets, an album of traditional (“We Met in the Saddle,” “Maple on the Hill”) and relatively contemporary (Hank Williams’ “Mansion on the Hill” or the Louvins’ “Pitfall”) numbers. The album was nominated for a Grammy award, and reviews solidified the Whitsteins’ standing as the great brother duet of the modern era. The Whitstein Brothers faithfully played the Grand Ole Opry through this time as guests and desperately wanted to become members; however, they were never invited.

After the release of Sweet Harmony in the mid-1990s, Robert grew tired of the road. He retired from performing to spend time with his family in Louisiana. Charles continued performing as a solo artist and with boyhood idol Charlie Louvin.

On November 14, 2001, Robert rose early, as was his custom. He spent the early morning in prayer and Bible study then went fishing. While fishing, he complained to his fishing partner that he felt bad. They cut the fishing trip short and returned to Robert’s home. Robert had begun to feel better, but said if he was still feeling ill after changing out of his fishing gear he would go to the doctor. He went into the bathroom and collapsed. At the age of 57, a heart attack claimed his life and broke up one of the greatest brother duets of bluegrass.

Charles was devastated. “There’s not a day that goes by,” Charles’ wife, Ida said, “when Charles doesn’t hear a beautiful song and say, ‘Wish I could share this with you, Bob.’”

“He’s always with me,” Charles confirmed. “We still sing together in my dreams.”


Anonymous said...

Well in three days it will be six years and six months since you left us. Im sitting in a motel room in Texas thinking about all the good times we had together. I'm listening to sound bites from you and Charles on the internet and it sure does take me back to wonderful times in my life. You have two additional grandsons I wish you could have met. Boy they are wonderful. True blue Whitstines. Not to mention the three new grand daughters you have. My house has grown to be a large family. I love it. The two older girls remember you and ask about you from time to time. We will never forget you and youll always be in our hearts. As I go through life, I understand what fears you had about raising kids in this world. I have become you. The Lord took pa pa last summer. He's under the hickory tree where we said good bye to you. He never was the same after you left. Please ask the lord to never never let me outlive my children. I miss you daddy and the other boys do too. I wish I could have said goodbye to you and told you that I love you. The world is an empty place without you. You'll be missed always. Robby.......

Anonymous said...

I miss you to much at times. You were always the kindest and most loving man. You taught me so much at just an early age. So much that I can reflect in my years to come. You always were the smartest and most god loving man in any room. Your wisdom and understanding brought peace to the those who surrounded you. I pray this day that I can reflect your image and turn out to be just the man you were. I know that you are proud of me for becoming the man that I am. It kills me to know that the world is so blind and that you made it all seem so simple. Your biggest lesson was to put god ahead and life will be as great as it should be.I'll always love you and I can't wait to greet you at those pearly gates. The world truly is empty without you here.