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Nashville Theater Family Mourns the Death of Grammy Award-Winner/Broadway Veteran Lari White

Nashville Theater Family Mourns the Death of Grammy Award-Winner/Broadway Veteran Lari White

Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter, producer and actress Lari White Cannon - who made her Broadway debut in the Johnny Cash musical review Ring of Fire - died early this morning in Nashville after a battle with peritoneal cancer. She was 52 years old.

Lari White Cannon leaves behind her husband, Chuck Cannon (one of Nashville's leading singer/songwriters and producers) and their three children, M'Kenzy, Kyra Ciel and Jaxon.

Earlier today, I learned that Lari White has died after an all-too-brief yet tremendously rewarding and impactful life. She lived with such grace and so much passion - she was kind, generous, supportive and so very talented. I am bereft yet again at the loss of someone who has occupied a special place in my heart since the very first moment I met her. Lari was a formidable presence onstage, despite her waifish physical presence, and she was an incredibly funny actor who later became known for her Grammy-award winning musical career. She was, perhaps more important, an individual. I don't know if I've met anyone else with the particular blend of skills and talents that Lari White carried within her and shared with the rest of the world.

I last saw her a couple of years ago, when she appeared as a special guest of Chambers Stevens during a performance of his one-man show at TPAC. She sang "Amazing Grace" with such authenticity I can still feel the reverberations in my heart. And back in the day - the heady days of a Nashville theater season thought golden by the people who lived it -- she was the very first person to call me up and ask if she could perform at First Night in 1990, leading to a flood of others in the intervening years who shared her eagerness to share their talents at our unique celebration of live theater. I owe her such a debt of gratitude for that and while I am certain that I told her that every chance I got, I was never able to convey how much her selfless act meant to me. I will miss her, but celebrate the fact I knew her.

Before her rise to fame in the field of country music, Lari White first became a favorite of Nashville theater audiences during her appearances with Imaginers (a traveling troupe of adult actors performing for younger audiences) and the Avante Garage Comedy Repertory Company (a company led by co-founders Michael Bouson and Joe Correll, which specialized in improvisational comedy and the production of original musicals), subsequently starring in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center-produced A Rock Wedding, an original musical staged during the 1989-90 Nashville theater season.

Lari White was the recipient of the 1990 First Night Award for Outstanding Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance in A Rock Wedding, which was directed by acclaimed playwright Mark Medoff.

She first garnered national attention in 1988 when she was the winner of You Can Be A Star, a televised talent search competition on The Nashville Network. Subsequently, her musical career took off in the 1990s with a series of country hits that included "That's My Baby," "Now I Know," "That's When you Know (You're in Love)" and "Ready, Willing and Able," among a collection of songs for which she became known. She made music history when she produced Toby Keith's platinum-charting 2006 album White Trash with Money, which marked the first time a male superstar's album was produced by a woman.

In addition to her stage accomplishments and musical chart success, Lari White also performed in such films as Cast Away and Country Strong.

Despite her notoriety on other stages around the world, her Nashville theater family (both far afield and closer to home) continued to be part of Lari's life and family and friends today grapple with their grief, while sharing their memories of her.

Kathleen O'Brien, president and CEO of Tennessee Performing Arts Center: The world just lost a great Nashville treasure. Lari was a consummate artist and an absolute delight to work with. Whether on stage performing or involved in some community endeavor, Lari's absolutely contagious personality and talented artistry shone through her work, inspiring everyone in the room. She will always be a part of TPAC's history and family with her work in our first original production in 1989, A Rock Wedding, and supporting our recording of the "Give Yourself a High Five" album for pre-schoolers. She will be dearly missed.

Mark DelaBarre, actor: She was a singular talent: gushed over by none other than Michael Reidel (New York Post) after her Carnegie Hall debut - at that same show, Alan and Marilyn Bergman (who the show was celebrating) gushed over her talent and said she should do the role (even if she was a "shiksa"). We, of course were lucky enough to see her on stage often - living in Nashville (and even here in NYC which she also adored).

Very rarely in theatre do you see the entire cast stand in the wings to watch a fellow castmate sing. She was that remarkable. That said - all that talent paled in comparison to her heart. She was, from the moment I met her, the most genuine, silly, kind and giving person I'd ever met. She married the man of her dreams and had three exquisitely beautiful, talented and whip-smart kids. Oh, and did I mention she was the first female producer of an album by a male superstar in the country music business?

We've lost a lot today, but none more than her family. Please hold them in your hearts and prayers.

Chambers Stevens, actor, playwright and producer: When my wife and I left Nashville, Lari was a struggling singer/songwriter. But it wasn't too long after that she got a record deal and released her first album. Alan Jackson heard the album and asked her to open for him on tour. And they came to Southern California. Being an opening act is hard. But being an opening act for a country music act in Los Angles is beyond hard. And the crowd was not interested in her the night we came to see our friend.

Lari, of course, kept performing in that wonderful bright bubbly way of hers. But honestly it didn't make any difference. It was hard to see a friend go through that. But Lari wasn't down for the count. She signaled to the band that she didn't need them for the next song. They looked puzzled. And then Lari, very gently started singing "Amazing Grace." Everyone in the place stopped. It was instant. No one moved. It was like her heart just opened and touched everyone in the stadium. When she was finished there was a beat of silence. As if we had all experienced a miracle at the same time. And then it hit, the applause, which was deafening in its enthusisiam.

Lari smiled, took a bow, and walked off. When I heard she passed, I remembered that moment: Lari smiling.

Su Hyatt Amsden, actor: Lari and I performed together at Chaffin's Barn in the comedy group, The Avante Garage. She was a petite fireball of talent. She had grace and didn't mind sharing the stage with others. But you just knew she was special. Lari was the hardest working performer I knew. She was destined to share her talents with a larger audience. We've all been blessed.

Michael Bouson actor and co-founder (with Joe Correll) of The Avante Garage Comedy Repertory Company: Lari White was an ebullient, generous, funny, talented and beautiful person. More importantly, she was my friend. A member of the third incarnation of The Avante Garage Improv/Sketch Comedy Troupe, Lari helped create some of the company's funniest and most endearing genuine moments. But it was her work as Puck in our production of Almost a Midsummer Night's Dream that has haunted me for the past 30 years. Because in a way, Lari was Puck. A clever, mischievous sprite as naive as she was fearless, with a ferocious sense of humor. And that voice! Dear God, the voice of an angel.

It's been 30 years since Joe and I left Nashville, but Lari has remained a true friend to us, even recently appearing in one of Joe's reality shows "Breaking Bass." And we had been talking to her about developing a new show around the jam sessions she had at her home recording studio in the holler.

I am sad. I am in shock and I will grieve her passing for a long, long time. I wish it was just a dream with all my heart.

As Lari/Puck sang at the end of Midsummer:

"If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber'd here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

If you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call;

So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends."

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Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)

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