1 of 2
Sharon Munson, Associated Press
A statue of the late country music singer Keith Whitley is seen in 2003 in Sandy Hook, Ky.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bonnie Hill was 12 when she first saw Kentucky-born country music singer Keith Whitley play a concert in his native Appalachia.

It left an "everlasting impression" on Hill. Now, nearly two decades after his death from alcohol poisoning, Hill is fervently trying to cement Whitley's name in country music history.

Whitley, who grew up in Sandy Hook, Ky., was no stranger to the country charts in the 1980s, recording a string of hits including "Don't Close Your Eyes," and "I Wonder Do You Think of Me." He sold more than 3 million albums before and after his death at age 33 in 1989.

Hill says Whitley — whose songs are still performed by stars including Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and Alison Krauss — deserves to be among the legends enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn.

"A lot of people know who Keith Whitley was, but I kind of have to refresh their memory," said Hill, who named her daughter Whitley after the curly-haired singer.

Hill, who worked in the medical services industry for 17 years before becoming disabled in 2003, had no ties to Whitley before she started her campaign. Since then she has grown close to Whitley's family, including his parents, brother and sister-in-law.

Her Internet petition has so far collected nearly 2,000 signatures, including some stars who knew Whitley: Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe and Alan Frizzell, brother of Honky Tonk legend Lefty Frizzell.

But Whitley's pedigree and legion of fans is no guarantee he'll get into country music's exclusive Hall of Fame.

Even 83-year-old Stanley, whose honors include a Grammy, the National Medal of Arts and membership at the Grand Ole Opry, isn't in the hall.

"I'd like to be in it and I'd like to see Keith in it, too," said Stanley, who hired Whitley to play with his backing band when Whitley was a teen.

Hill, 38, said she will travel to Nashville later this year to make a pitch for Whitley to an assistant to the Hall of Fame's director.

There are plenty of fans who contact the museum to make a push for their favorite artist, but few have taken it as far as Hill, said Scott Stem, a spokesman for the Country Music Association, which conducts the Hall of Fame balloting.

"As far as one who has taken the time to come down and meet with people, I don't know that we see that that often," he said.

Stem said inductees are voted on by a secret list of about 300 country artists and industry people, meaning petitions and input from fans hold no sway.

"They're purposely kept anonymous so that nobody can influence their vote," Stem said. "We view it as country music's highest honor."

It is an exclusive club. Since 1961, when it began accepting members, only about 100 country artists, acts and industry people have made it to the Nashville Hall of Fame. There are well over 200 inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which began accepting members in the mid-1980s.

Hill acknowledges that her petition alone won't get Whitley in but says the singer's influence on modern artists should keep his name in the mix.

Rising country star Ashton Shepherd, who was 3 years old when Whitley died, said Whitley had an indelible influence on her career and she has mentioned Whitley by name in her music.

"I just think he's just brilliant, anything he's ever done," said Shepherd, who turns 22 in August. "To have been taken out of this world so early in his career, it's sort of like a Hank Williams story, but yet he's changed country music, for the good."

Chesney, upon winning entertainer of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2007, told the crowd that he had only hoped to "cut a record as good as Keith Whitley did."

"He's been dead almost 20 years, and his music has stood the test of time" said Flo Whitley, who is married to Keith Whitley's brother, Dwight. "It's been almost 20 years and there's still all these artists dropping his name as an influence."

Whitley began singing as a 4-year-old. After leaving Stanley's band he became lead singer for J.D. Crowe and the New South, a country-bluegrass band. He went solo in the mid-1980s after earning a reputation with his smooth voice and landed a recording contract with RCA. In 1998, nearly 10 years after his death, a bronze statue of Whitley was dedicated near Sandy Hook. The statue was commissioned by New York entrepreneur Richard Snowden, a Whitley fan.

Many of Whitley's songs were emblematic of a hard-living lifestyle, which he lived off the stage. An autopsy after his death indicated a blood alcohol content of 0.477.

Hill is hoping to put together a memorial concert in eastern Kentucky in September for Whitley, and she says she won't rest until he is honored in the Hall of Fame.

"Whether it's next year or the next ten years, I'm not going to give up."