Singer Lari White has recently garnered national headlines for becoming the first female to produce a record for a male country superstar, but her latest accomplishment is merely the fulfillment of a destiny for which she’s spent most of her life preparing.
Although she’s a well-known name on Music Row—thanks to two gold records, top 10 hits such as “That’s My Baby” and “Now I Know,” three Grammy nominations and an Academy of Country Music nomination—much of her career success came after she lost her major label deal and dared to venture off of the industry’s beaten path. She starred as an angel-making artist in the Tom Hanks’ movie Cast Away and was seen in the 2004 Lifetime Channel movie No Regrets, which was made in Nashville. Currently she’s in New York, where she was the standout in the Broadway musical Ring of Fire, which ran for about eight weeks.When news first leaked that White co-produced with Toby Keith on his new CD, White Trash With Money, it sounded like an odd pairing. She’s an open-minded, well-read intellectual with a deep interest in philosophy and religion. The mother of three—ages 8, 6 and 2—is a cultured woman who seems to have little tolerance for intolerance. And Keith is, well, not.
But in her own gracious way, she is as much an industry rebel as the blustering, testosterone-fueled Keith. Just as Keith became frustrated with major labels and launched his own label, Show Dog, White released her last CD, 2004’s Green Eyed Soul, on her own label, Skinny White Girl Records, so she could make the music she wanted without having to please focus groups or A&R committees. She and her husband, songwriter Chuck Cannon, have the Nashville Underground label that spotlights Nashville’s unsung songwriter/artists, and a studio called The Holler, which features an impressive combination of vintage gear and digital equipment, located on the wooded property near their Bellevue home.
Keith was not only attracted to her independent spirit, but also her personality, musical knowledge and style in the studio. They became friends in the early 1990s, when they were on the county-fair circuit. (Cannon and Keith forged a fruitful songwriting relationship.) Keith and White performed a duet on her Lyric Street record, and she co-produced Keith’s duet with his daughter on his Greatest Hits 2 CD.
“After 10 years’ worth of history, then he called last fall and said, ‘I want to go in your studio and cut some demos with you and see what we could come up with,’ ” White says. “ ‘If we get anything that is good, I’ll put it on the next album and give you producer credit.’ So I booked the players and didn’t approach it like it was demos; I approached it like we were going to produce masters. He came out for a couple of days and it was like cutting butter. We cut three songs the first day and four songs the second day. Halfway through the second day, he said, ‘Maybe we ought to book another set of sessions. I am enjoying myself in the studio and I haven’t in a long time, so let’s do some more of this.’”
After White finished the demos for “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “Can’t Buy You Money” and “A Little Too Late,” Keith told her to master them for the album. “I left the studio with the first single and put it right in my promotion staff’s hands,” Keith says in his bio. “Then we went back in the studio and kept right on going to finish the album.
“Lari’s as talented a producer as she is a singer,” he says. “She has an incredible bag of tricks. It wasn’t any more freedom—James (Stroud) always let me do whatever I wanted—but it was a lot of new ideas and a nice change.”
One of the changes included recruiting George del Barrio, an Argentine string arranger who had worked with artists ranging from Herb Alpert to Michael Jackson.
“When I went to L.A. to do the strings, it was very interesting because it was very intimidating,” she says. “It was a whole roomful of the best string players in Los Angeles and the recording studio, Capitol A, which is where Sinatra and Dean Martin and Judy Garland recorded strings, and this legendary composer/arranger. But I’ve never had a situation in music where the joy of it didn’t overcome any negativity or intimidation that was going on or bubbling under the surface. For me, it is almost inevitable that if I allow myself to experience the joy of the music, it all takes care of itself, all the little political, interpersonal relationship dynamics that are always going on.”
White didn’t give much thought to her record-setting feat while in the heat of production because there simply wasn’t time. She and Keith finished the record in six weeks, which was the window she had before moving to New York in January for Broadway rehearsals. “My friends (songwriter/producers) Stephony Smith and Victoria Shaw and I have been talking the last few years about how few women producers there are and we rallied for each other’s progress, but I didn’t think about it until the record was done, really,” she says. “I am not going to pretend that I didn’t think about it. The women producers in Nashville that I know and talk to, it is a topic of conversation.”
But this was no fluke or stroke of luck. Like the Boy Scouts, her motto is “be prepared.” White has been preparing for this moment for most of her life. “The actual moment of opportunity has very much seemed to appear out of the blue, like getting the phone call that they are shooting a Tom Hanks movie and they want me to shoot a home video as an audition, and that resulting in the movie. The initial moment was definitely out of the blue, but I had done all this work to prepare for it. If I got the opportunity, I would be as ready as I could be. I didn’t miss the opportunity if it presented itself.”
Raised by two educators in Dunedin, Fla., she has always approached life as a student. She began taking piano lessons at age 4 and continued until she was 19, and also took ballet, jazz and acting lessons. White, who spent her teen years playing throughout the Gulf Coast, began music theory study at age 9, and continued that through her years at the University of Miami. “The music engineering degree was never intended to make me an engineer,” she says. “It was always for the production aspect of it, being able to know my way around a studio enough to communicate with an engineer and musicians and be comfortable at the helm of a session.”
Although she had no industry contacts, she moved to Nashville at age 23 and won The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star in 1988. She soon began getting her songs recorded by other artists, and performed in local theater on the side. Four years later, she landed a backup singing gig with Rodney Crowell, and then released her own album, Lead Me Not, on RCA in 1993.
“Rodney was my first producer and he actually did more for my production career than anyone because he invited me personally and generously to co-produce my first album for RCA,” says White, who co-produced two of her albums. “He is very strong himself, very centered and has a clear creative vision, but more than anybody I’ve ever been around, he creates all of this space for everybody in the room to give their best offerings. I definitely emulate that spirit in the studio.”
But she has her own manner as well. “I am happy with my role as a woman in the studio; I always found it worked to my advantage,” she says. “Because if I have a secret, a style of production, it’s how much I adore musicians. I am in love with players who have mastered their instruments and are willing to bring their talent into that collaborative environment and share their gifts. I don’t have to play the macho intimidation leadership role and I don’t have to play the too-cool-for-school role. I just go in going, ‘Oh my God, I love you guys so much. Let’s eat really good food and play.’ ”
When she returns home in July, she’ll begin making a gospel album, but she would like to produce more albums for other artists. She produced Cannon’s new CD, God Shaped Hole, about half of Billy Dean’s last CD and a record for gospel singer Shawn Tate. She is also open to tackling any acting roles that come along, as long as they don’t require her to spend extended periods in Los Angeles. She’s enchanted by New York, so she’ll likely spend more time playing and auditioning there.
“I have no idea what my career is,” she says. “I might get some kind of perspective on it when I am about 92 and look back on it and say, ‘That kind of made sense.’ I have no clue. I just run on pure desire. All I have ever wanted to do is make music and perform and get up in front of people and try to make music that makes them feel good. It has been such an odd, twisted path. But each immediate step has made perfect sense because it’s always been a door that opened. It was like, ‘Oh, that is the next obvious door to walk through.’ ”