Remembering Robert “Bob” Whitstein (March 16, 1944 – November 15, 2001) was born 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 which 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.”