On A High Note

Chuck Cannon and Lari White: The Love Behind Their Love Songs

Lari White

Sports & Entertainment Nashville is proud to welcome back Nashville’s very own Steve Morley as a guest writer, playing the role of Cupid with this oh-so-dreamy peek inside the lives of the acclaimed duo Chuck Cannon and Lari White. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we hope you enjoy our homage to love with this entertaining, endearing, and even amusing fairy tale from Music Row.

Lari White & Chuck Cannon

Lari White & Chuck Cannon

On any given day in Nashville, songwriters both established and aspiring are hard at work—and most likely, they’re laboring to encapsulate the mystery of that little word that, come February, is especially present in the minds of many: L-O-V-E. Armed with everything from impressions, cultural clichés and their own emotional backlogs, skilled songsmiths can cobble together convincing, if sometimes contrived, odes to the Great Magnet. Still, there’s simply no substitute for honest experience when it comes to writing a love song. This brings us to today’s topic: singer/songwriters Chuck Cannon and Lari White.

Thanks to tubloads of talent and tenacity, Lari and Chuck have scored career accomplishments too numerous to list here, but they probably wouldn’t have dared to imagine the storybook-like romance they themselves experienced after meeting in Nashville in the early 1990s. Lari, who was soon to turn critics’ heads with her daringly diverse RCA debut Lead Me Not, came to Nashville from Florida in 1988 with years of performing experience (with her family’s own band), classical piano training, a brand-spanking-new audio engineering degree and a surplus of spunk. She remembers being comfortable as a single person at the time, but she does confess that she had a certain kind of guy in mind.

“I never could see myself with someone who wasn’t in music, who didn’t make music or wasn’t in the arts somehow,” Lari told S&E. “I’m not really sure why, but I never really dated many guys who weren’t creative types.” Her then-publisher, Leslie Schmidt, took her to the weekly writers’ night at Third Coast Cafe (now the Bound’ry) to meet the regulars there, which included Chuck, an up-and-coming writer who came to Nashville from South Carolina. As Lari tells the story, Chuck was none too subtle in making his interest known, but it wasn’t until hearing him perform—and specifically, noticing the depth and thoughtfulness of his songs—that the dominoes of destiny were ultimately set into motion.

In a career that includes acting (that’s her with Tom Hanks in the final scene of Cast Away), a string of charting country hits, songwriting and, uniquely, music production—typically not the domain of females—perhaps nothing could top the experience of the early hit singles Lari and Chuck wrote together as their relational and professional stars began to rise in tandem. Bookending their first year as husband and wife were two successful co-writes: the No. 5 country song “That’s My Baby” and, right around their first anniversary in April of 1995, the Top 10 single “That’s How You Know (When You’re in Love).” This Thursday, Feb. 14, the couple will be celebrating Valentine’s Day with a 9 p.m. performance at The Bluebird Cafe. (To make reservations, call The Bluebird at 615-383-1461.)

S&E: Which came first with you and Chuck—a songwriting relationship or a romantic relationship?

Lari White

Lari White

Lari: Actually, Chuck made a very strong point when he asked me out. The very first night he asked me out on a date, he said, “Now, I am asking you out on a date. I have romantic intentions; I’m not asking you to write a song.” Because, you know, songwriters get a really bad reputation for saying, “Hey, let’s get together and write a song!” when it’s all a ploy to get a date. Chuck was wanting to make sure that he was being very up front. We actually tried for a long time to keep the “personal” and the “creative” separate—like, we weren’t going to write together. But it just happened so naturally that we started writing songs together just a couple of months after we started dating. And successfully, you know. It fairly quickly became a huge part of our relationship—a really integral part.

S&E: What was the first song you and Chuck wrote together?

Lari: All the first songs we wrote together were like breakup, heartache [laughs], really not romantic songs. I think the very first song that we finished was called “Drag It Out.” It was about a relationship that just kept dragging on and on and no one would end it, but it clearly needed to be over. After some time, we did write love songs together. I never really wrote a lot of love songs. It was well into my relationship with Chuck before I felt like . . . I had something honest to say about it, I guess. But [writing out-of-love songs] might have been a way to write together and explore that [creative] part of our relationship without getting . . . too analytical or too deep into what was happening.

S&E: What was it like to experience two Top 10 hits that you’d written together?

Lari: Oh, it was just wonderful fun—just great, very exciting and very satisfying. We were actually on our honeymoon when “That’s My Baby” was climbing the charts. We took a cross-country road trip for our honeymoon. We drove all over the West—through the Badlands, up into Mount Rushmore, down to Las Vegas. . . . In the middle of our honeymoon, we stopped in Los Angeles and both went to the ACM [Academy of Country Music] Awards, where Chuck was nominated for Song of the Year for [the John Michael Montgomery hit] “I Love the Way You Love Me”—which he had written for me—and I was nominated [for Best New Female Vocalist] and performed “That’s My Baby,” which I had written for him. So, that was really . . . [laughs] enough to make you sick, almost—we were on our honeymoon, and these songs about our relationship were bringing us so much success. Yeah, it was really, really thrilling.

S&E: Was your 1995 Top 10 hit, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love),” a literal description of your own blossoming relationship?

Lari: Oh, I can remember the day that we wrote that song like it was yesterday—we were sitting on the porch of Chuck’s apartment on Villa Place—which is just off of the Row—and it was just a beautiful, pristine spring day, and we wrote every line about, “this is what it’s like to feel like this. This is what’s happening right now.”

S&E: The point where art meets life.

Lari: Yeah . . . in the best kind of way.

S&E: How would you compare collaborating on a song to being married? Do you find they function in similar ways?

Chuck Cannon

Chuck Cannon

Lari: Oh . . . it’s so much easier to write a song . . . dear God! [laughs heartily] It involves a lot of compromise, a lot of collaboration, a lot of getting inside the other person’s understanding. And really opening yourself up for the other person to do that. I’ve heard several writers refer to the process of co-writing as being similar to dating. You might think, “Oh, I love this person’s songs, I love how they write, I love how they think—I want to get together and write a song with them.” And then you’ll just not be compatible—at all. [You’ll] just sit there and look at each other and realize that nothing good is going to come of this. There’s a chemistry, there’s a lot of subconscious and beyond-conscious exchange happening, I think, in the creative act of writing a song with someone and in an intimate relationship.

S&E: What’s been the biggest challenge in balancing personal and professional relationship at this level?

Lari: Um, well . . . everything changes when you have kids. We have three kids—they’re now 15, 13 and 9. And I think the challenge of being so many things to so many people, playing a critical role of responsibility in so many different demanding arenas, is incredibly taxing. It’s easy to feel like there is just not time, not time for your relationship. Especially [with] the demands of your family and your kids and two complex and diverse careers.

S&E: How often do you and Chuck get to perform together?

Lari: You know, lately we’ve been performing a little bit more together. I’d say we play together several times a year, but they’re always random, kind of one-off performances. The Bluebird is one of our favorite places to play, and we have done Valentine’s Night at The Bluebird several times over the years and really enjoyed it.

S&E: So, will you be focusing on romantic-themed songs for the Bluebird show?

Lari: Well . . . I’m sure that there will be a gracious plenty of those in there, but I think we’ve been together long enough that we would both feel obligated to tell the whole story [laughs]. And it’s definitely not all hearts and flowers and romance, so . . . we’ll probably get a good, wide range of relationship experience out of being married for 20 years—both songs and stories. Chuck is really active as an indie singer/songwriter/acoustic-rock artist. He’s very much a storyteller-slash-songwriter/performer, so he’s got some stories to tell.

Lari White

Lari White

S&E: Is it hard to keep finding new ways to write about love?

Lari: It’s easy to lose interest in writing love songs, because all the best ones have been written—you know, why do we need another love song? But Chuck observed that, every year, there’s a new crop of 14-year-old kids—15, 16—falling in love for the first time. And they don’t want their big sister’s song, or their dad’s, or their grandparents’ love song—they want their own love song that gets right to the heart of what they are experiencing, like no one else has ever experienced it before. And it’s such a universal theme with truly endless, infinite varieties—as infinite as there are human beings. So, it’s a good way to keep it fresh as a writer, to remember that it’s not the same for the 14-year-olds who are falling in love this spring.

Our many thanks to the lovely and talented Lari White for so graciously agreeing to talk with Sports & Entertainment Nashville at a moment’s notice—and for making the conversation a delight.