The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
When You Say Nothing at All

When You Say Nothing at All

#145 / Nov. 18 Podcast

It had been an unproductive day for songwriters Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, and this pair was unaccustomed to dry spells. After all, together and individually, Overstreet and Schlitz had written dozens of Top 10 hits, had won multiple Grammys and each frequently had been named country music’s Songwriter of the Year.

Still, this day in 1988 was frustrating. Hours of guitar strumming had produced zero new ideas.

"Then, as we tried to find another way to say nothing, we came up with this song," Overstreet later told author Ace Collins. Soon came the line that would lead to the title: “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”

It was something, this particular nothing. Initially, though, Overstreet said, they thought the song was OK, but just… well, nothing special.

But that was before the late Keith Whitley heard it. Keith loved it, and, moreover, he was not going to let it get away. Not like the last time.

Earlier, Whiley had recorded a different Overstreet-Schlitz creation — “On the Other Hand” — only to watch it become a No. 1 hit for a competing artist, singer Randy Travis. Whitley said he was determined not to let "When You Say Nothing at All" meet the same fate.

And it didn’t.

In fact, to date, “When You Say Nothing at All” has been a hit for four different performers. Whitley, of course, was first to take it to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in late 1988. Then seven years later, Allison Krauss’s version was her first solo Top-10 country hit. A year after that, Irish singer Francis Black made the song her third Irish Top 10 single. And that brought the song to the attention of Irish pop singer Ronan Keating, whose 1999 version was his first solo single and a No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand.

But to this day, “When You Say Nothing at All” is always associated first with Whitley. The Ashland, Ky., native’s recording entered the Hot Country Singles chart on Sep. 17, 1988, at a modest No. 61. Then it gradually rose to the top, where it stayed for two weeks at the end of the year. “Keith did a great job singin' that song," co-composer Schlitz told author Tom Roland. "He truly sang it from the heart.”

When Krauss covered the song with her group Union Station in 1995, it was for a tribute album to Whitley, and suddenly the Overstreet-Schlitz composition was topping the charts again.

"It's a freak thing," Krauss told The Los Angeles Times in March 1995. "It's kinda ticklin' us all. We haven't had anything really chart before. At all. Isn't it funny, though? We didn't know what's goin' on.... The office said, 'Hey, it's charting,' and we're like, 'Huh?'" The recording was named the Country Music Association’s Single of the Year and even hit the big screen when the rendition was used in the 1999 movie “The Other Sister.”

(By the way, during the time when Krauss' version was on the charts, Mike Cromwell, production director at Milwaukee’s WMIL-FM, concocted a duet merging elements of her version with Whitley's original. This post-mortem "duet" garnered national attention, though it was never released commercially.)

Our Take on the Tune

Danny and Randy brought us this song just a couple of weeks ago, and in no time it became a rehearsal night favorite.

Here’s our latest take on the tune, with Randy doing the honors on the vocals and everybody taking turns on the solos.


If this has got you in the mood for more Floody goodness, you can take a spin through other tunes that have visited the band’s rehearsal space lately.

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The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: