Country singer Lari White died this week at just 52 years old after a brief battle with a rare form of cancer. The vocalist and occasional actress – she had a memorable scene opposite Tom Hanks in 2000’s Cast Away – was known for a string of Top 10 hits in the mid-Nineties and continued to perform, often with her songwriter husband Chuck Cannon, until just recently.
In 2015, she sat for an interview prior to a show outside Houston. Sipping a Coke and frequently flashing a broad smile, White spoke candidly about her road to country success, the song she wrote and recorded about her mom’s own battle with the same disease that took her life, and about standing out in the crowded country-radio field of the Nineties – especially as a female artist. “You wouldn’t believe how many program directors looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know I’d love to hear your music, but we’ve already got a female act that we’re playing.'” Here’s White’s Q&A, published for the first time.
After studying at the University of Miami it didn’t take you very long to hit the road for Nashville. What brought you there?
I went to college to make music and study music. When I was in college, it was the mid to late Eighties. It was pop music. I was in a bunch of cover bands and we were doing all drum machine songs and everything was sequenced and programmed and I hated it. I was really not interested in what was happening in pop music at the time. A friend of mine – who had cable TV, which I did not – had the Nashville Network and they told me about this talent show [You Can Be a Star] out of Nashville. I had bought the Trio album with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, the first Foster & Lloyd album and I had gotten into Rodney Crowell. When I heard these records coming out of Nashville – Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang – I was like, “I’m going to Nashville.” I could never really see myself being a pop artist.
In 1988, before you really began recording albums, Capitol Records released your single “Flying Above the Rain.” How did that all come about?
Part of the prize package of you win You Can Be a Star was that you got to record a single on Capitol Records. It was a song that I had written with Lisa Silver about my mom who, right as I was making my move to Nashville, had been diagnosed with cancer. It didn’t look good, it was really scary. I wrote that song about her and for her: We’re going to get through this and we’re going to “fly above the rain.” The single was released, but you know, it was a good educational process. Typically contest winners don’t get the label’s full attention, but it was a great learning process for me. I learned about the process of making a record.
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Female artists really dominated the country music scene of the Nineties. Did you find any difficulty standing out in such a crowded music scene?
When I first started doing my little radio tour going around to visit [radio station] program directors with RCA – before my first record ever came out – you wouldn’t believe how many program directors looked me in the eye and said, “You know I’d love to hear your music, but we’ve already got a female act that we’re playing” or “we’re already playing two female acts” or “we’ve already got two female artists on the Top 20. So, you know, too bad!” There were a lot of great women making a lot of great music out of Nashville in the country genre at that time. We all kind of carried each other along.
Did you feel at any point like the music industry was really trying to force you to be a certain way or produce only a particular kind of sound?
Well, that was what “Don’t Fence Me In” was about. I’d had a gold record, I’d had hits on the radio and I was already kind of chafing, wanting to expand and bring some of the jazz influences and some of the other genres and styles of music that I had loved and had been a part of my musical development. It didn’t take very long for me to feel like the country radio box was a little too small. So that’s what “Don’t Fence Me In” was all about. Getting Shelby Lynne and Trisha Yearwood to come on and be guest singers. Doing the whole Andrews Sisters version at the beginning of the album and then reprising it with the rockabilly version at the end. I was really trying not to have just another 10-song hoedown record.
When your relationship with RCA came to an end, you then released one album, Stepping Stone, on the new Lyric Street label. That was 1998 and your final major label country album. What was that time like?
It was a really rich time for me in a lot of ways. I’d just had my first child, so that completely opened up a whole new universe of experience and emotion and just connected me to myself in ways that I had never experienced before. It also put the whole career thing into a little different perspective. I’d always wanted to be a mom. Actually, being a mom was always my top priority. It was like, “I’m going to be a star and I’m going to get done with that and then I’m going to go be a mom.”
Your next release, Green Eyed Soul, on your own Skinny White Girl label, was more R&B and not really country at all. Were you over country music?
I wasn’t over country music. I could just tell that I wasn’t really fitting into the format super well. We made Stepping Stone, we put it out, it had moderate success on the radio, but not the kind of success that would have made me want to make another country album. It was like, “Country music has been great to me, but there’s some other things that I really want to explore.” We had just finished building our studio in the holler where we live … and nobody was telling me what to do or how to sound. I didn’t have to worry about how much the studio [time] was costing because it was my studio. The first songs that I wrote during that period of time were “Right Here Right Now” and “Nothing But Love.” They were just really soulful, R&B, blue-eyed soul kind of music.
You spoke earlier about being a mom. You and your husband now have three kids. What do you hope for them as they get older?
With our kids, Chuck [Cannon] and I have always felt incredibly fortunate to have actually put bread on the table doing something that we love so deeply. I imagine a utopia where every human being can do that – can put bread on the table doing what they are most passionate about. We have been incredibly fortunate to live that life. It’s not always easy – frequently it is terrifying and brutally difficult – but because it’s our passion it sees us through … If I could hope for anything at all for my children it would be that they could have the opportunity to find that life; to be able to sustain themselves and their families doing some kind of work that they are passionately in love with.