Today’s Guest: Lari White, country music singer
(Originally published in Two-Step, May 1994; UPDATE: Sadly, Lari White died of cancer on January 23, 2018.)
When Lari White says she’s had a pretty great year, she’s not kidding.
The Dunedin High School and University of Miami graduate’s first album, Lead Me Not (RCA), released in 1993, won rave reviews, respectable sales and an Academy of County Music nomination for best new female vocalist.
Not only that, but the 28-year-old singer/songwriter married singer/songwriter Chuck Cannon on April 23. The wedding was at Christ Church in Nashville, where White wore her mother’s wedding dress. “She made it when she got married,” White says, “and it fits like she made it for me.”
But wait! There’s more: Cannon was nominated for an ACM award as well, song of the year, for writing “I Love the Way You Love Me.”
And White’s featured as a recurring character in a CBS-TV pilot for the fall, “XXXs & OOOs,” in which she plays a photographer.
Finally – for now – her new album, Wishes, hits stores on June 15. Lari White recently spoke to Two-Step about all the exciting changes in her fast-paced life.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: You were in high school the last time we spoke – almost a decade ago – for the St. Petersburg Times. So what’s new?
LARI WHITE: (Laughing.) Do you remember what year that was? I did Girls State and I did Junior Achievement, I did the Junior Miss Pageant.
Was there an oldies group you were involved with?
Yes! Yes! That is sooo funny. Flashback, it was called. That is hilarious. A couple of summers when I came home from college. They would play the VFW Halls and stuff like that in Pinellas County. Thank you for thinking of them! I haven’t seen any of them in a long time and I really enjoyed working with them. That was a blast.
It just goes to show how long I’ve been doing this, just plugging away, anything I could do that kept me in the music business just as long as I can remember.
What was the first thing you did professionally? The first job you got paid for?
I kind of indirectly got paid for gigs as early as 4 years old because we sang for our supper at the community center with my Mom and Dad and my little brother and sister as the White Family Singers. We started getting little gigs here and there. I put together my first band when I was a teen.
What was the band called?
White Sound. We thought about calling it White Noise, but that was probably not a good name.
Did you get out to play much while you were at the University of Miami?
I sure did. I had an academic scholarship for tuition, but to pay rent and feed myself, I did all different kinds of music jobs. I sang studio sessions, background vocals, for different records that were made in Miami and a lot of jingles. I sang with a big band orchestra that did weddings and big parties at hotels on the beach.
Not strictly a country experience?
Unfortunately, there just wasn’t a whole lot of country music down in Miami. I grabbed those gigs when I could but didn’t have a whole lot of choice.
What background singing did you do, specifically?
I sang background on a record for Julio Iglesias. I sang backgrounds for Robin Gibbs of the BeeGees. He did a solo album called Secret Agent and I sang on that.
Sounds like good experience leading for a recording career?
Oh, yes. All stepping stones, kind of like on the job training.
Anything in particular you picked up while doing that kind of work?
Just a level of comfort in the studio, I think. A lot of people, when they get a record deal, have sung live and had bands and that kind of experience but maybe have not been in the studio, which is a very different experience. It takes them a little while to get used to it. But I had been doing it for 4-5 years by the time I got my record deal.
Did you learn a lot of the technical stuff in college?
Yes. I started out as a vocal major but I was doing so much work singing outside school that I learned more working than in the classroom. So I switched degrees to music engineering – studio equipment, acoustics, studio design and electronics – so I could eventually produce records. And I wanted to cut my own demos.
Most seniors on college campuses get recruited by law firms and big corporations – but not music students. When you graduated with a degree in music engineering and production, what were you thinking that you would do?
Well, you panic for a little while. I went directly to Nashville in 1988 because I knew that is where I belonged. That is where I needed to be. I had started to seriously write songs and think of writing as an integral part of performing.
Was there something waiting for you there, a job perhaps?
Oh, my gosh, no! I knew one person, a friend of our family who worked for the phone company. Otherwise, I didn’t know a soul. I had some phone numbers from music industry friends in Miami of some people to look up, but I really came with nothing but big dreams and a lot of drive and determination.
Did being from a small town help?
It’s that common ground, one of the common threads that runs through country music. It’s where most of the underlying themes of the music comes from: families working hard, small town ethics, everyone knowing each other.
Was there one person you came in contact with who set things in motion for you?
It was a combination of people. Nashville, as a music community, is remarkably supportive compared to other music cities like Los Angeles and New York. It was amazing to me how open people were, just letting me talk to them about the business and their experiences and getting advice.
Over several years – about 3-1/2 years – getting my demo tapes around, meeting other writers, co-writing and getting a publishing deal, you slowly become part of the community..
What were you doing to support yourself in the meantime?
I had luckily, fortunately, won a talent show that gave me some cash as part of the prize. So where normally I would have been waiting tables or selling clothes or something like that to make ends meet, I was able to do nothing but write and sing and live on the prize money for a while.
It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to see that down the line you could wind up recording and producing.
I hope so. I co-produced my first album with Rodney (Crowell). I knew I wanted to produce, but I didn’t think I was going to get to do it on my first album. Rodney was very generous. He saw I had done a lot of homework and I had a lot to say about how I wanted it to sound and be done.
Have you gotten the sense it’s kind of unusual around Nashville to come in on your first record and be involved in producing?
Yes, it really is.
When did you settle on country music?
Country is what my family sang. Our family group was country and gospel and anything with good harmony in it because everybody sang. Of course, I went through rebellious teen years and got into rock ‘n’ roll at 15; when I went to college, I got turned on to jazz and big band music, so I have those influences.
But when I started writing, I wrote country songs. When you write you dip into the deepest parts of yourself and country is what came out.
You apparently learned the value of writing your own songs as opposed to singing someone else’s songs.
Yes, although I think it was much less a financial or economic or intellectual decision as it was that I had always sort of dabbled in writing. When it came time to really get out into the world and build the career I found that I just sang (my own songs) better. I connected with the songs better and I had something to say. Lots of people have something to say but each person says it in their own unique way and, for me, it was just a natural part of performing. Funny – now, I can’t imagine not writing.
When you started writing songs more seriously did you look and listen to songs in a different way?
So you became more aware of structure and phrasing than you had when you were simply singing someone else’s songs?
Well, living in Nashville is almost like going to graduate school for writers. Everyone writes and there are such incredible writers here. You can go out every night of the week and hear the best writers in the world perform their own songs. When you see a writer with just a guitar up on a stage, singing their song the way it was conceived, it is the most pure, raw form. You really pay attention and focus on the structure and the lyrics and the melody.
A few years down the line, which do you think would give you more pride: to be known as a writer, a performer, or a producer?
I can’t separate them. I feel like the legacy of a song has the potential to live longer than the legacy of a singer. Incredible singers certainly influence generations beyond their own life, but songs have a way of resurfacing even a hundred years later and touching people if they are classic and universal. As a writer, I try to write classic songs, but as a singer, I want to outlive myself.
Your new husband, Chuck Cannon, is also a songwriter and, in fact, wrote songs on both of your albums. How did you meet?
We met about 3-1/2 years ago in Nashville at a writers’ night.
Were you introduced? How did you find each other?
We saw each other play. I was actually dating someone else at the time. I had seen him play and I knew that he was an incredible writer and a great performer.
As a writer, I want to hear you were attracted to his mind.
It’s a cliché, but I was really ready to be single for a while. I wasn’t really looking for anyone in my life but I went to see Chuck in the round one night and was really impressed by his depth. You can tell a lot about a person by the songs they write because they put their souls out on the table. Your deepest fears and beliefs come to light in your songs and a lot of his songs really showed great depth and great thoughtfulness and intelligence – and yes (she laughs), I was very attracted by that.
How quickly did things take off?
We started dating maybe four months after we met.
When were you engaged?
Last April (1993).
Its been nice.
Before you were engaged, the two of you co-wrote some songs. Have you and Chuck written songs for anyone else?
No, not yet. We have had them pitched to other artists but haven’t had any cuts yet.
Will you change your name now that you’re married?
Not my professional name. But I want my kids to have a real strong sense of family and not wonder why mom’s name is different than mine.
That answers the question: Do you want children?
Any time soon?
No. I’ve got some time.
Was this the most exciting year of your life?
Every year has been more exciting than the last. I don’t know what I’m going to do by the time I’m 50. I’ll probably just spontaneously combust.
Last year’s Country Radio Seminar Show was a real highlight. That was one of the first performances with my band and it was to all the radio programmers in America. I got two standing ovations and a wonderful response from them. It was a great welcome to country music.
Getting engaged – and most of my time out on the road – was really great. I really enjoy the road and performing live, so all of my touring last year was great.
Any other moments that stand out, maybe as the record charted?
The ACM award nomination was the highest honor I have been paid. To be nominated for best new female vocalist is a really wonderful thing and having not had a big hit, a top ten hit, it was especially good for me. It really lets me know that the industry believes in me and supports me.