Lari White Takes Johnny Cash Songs to Broadway

Producing Toby Keith's New Album, She Continues Country Career in Unique Ways

Singer-songwriter Lari White is spending a lot of time in New York lately, but she hasn’t abandoned her career in country music. In fact, White is honoring one of country’s legends as an original cast member of Ring of Fire, a new Broadway musical based on Johnny Cash’s music. She also produced Toby Keith’s new album, White Trash With Money, coming in April.

“I made my living as a theater actor before I got my record deal,” White recently told CMT Insider, “so it is in a way coming home on a bigger scale.”

White has rehearsed her role since Ring of Fire‘s first workshop in December 2004. The production opened Sunday (March 12) at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

“It was a little different than just walking into an existing role and doing my stint and leaving,” she said. “We actually got to create this piece and sit in a room together and make up parts and say, ‘Oh, I’ll sing the harmony part and you take the lead.’ The musicians were all making up what they were going to play. It’s been a very organic process of actually creating a piece of American theater.”

Yet, White still has a hard time explaining the concept of the show, which features 38 of Cash’s songs — although Cash is not a character in the script. The production also stars Jeb Brown, Jason Edwards, Tony-winner Jarrod Emich, Beth Malone and Cass Morgan.

“You just have to come to New York and see it,” she said. “It’s all music, it’s all family, it’s all community, it’s all heart, and it’s all Johnny at his best. He had no limitations. He had no boundaries.”

In the second act, White performs “All Over Again,” a Cash song she had never heard before production started. The director Richard Maltby asked her to rearrange it to make it her own. Now, she says, “I have completely fallen in love with that song.”

White notched a handful of Top 10 country hits in the mid-1990s, including “Now I Know” and “That’s My Baby.” After parting ways with RCA, she scored a 1997 hit duet with Travis Tritt (“Helping Me Get Over You”), then released one album on Lyric Street Records a year later. In 2002, she independently released Green-Eyed Soul. That same year, she formed a co-op label with her husband Chuck Cannon to release albums of songwriters performing their own hits.

In the last few months of 2005, she teamed with Toby Keith in the studio she shares with Cannon, one of Keith’s frequent collaborators. White is among only a handful of female producers in Nashville, and she has a clever theory about why Keith chose her.

“He loves my production, but I think he’s just trying to get on Oprah,” she joked. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I got a chick producer! Come on, book me!’”

Keith asked White to produce some demos in the fall of 2005, so she scheduled a few days in her studio and hired a group of musicians that Keith didn’t know.

“We thought we’d cut maybe two or three songs in those two days,” White recalled. “Well, we cut three songs the first day, and we cut three songs the next day. It was like cutting butter. It was so easy. Toby enjoyed himself. He had a good time making music again. Sometimes it’s not easy to enjoy yourself so much when you get to the level of success that he has.”

Pleased with the results, Keith and White forged ahead, completing the album by the end of the year.

“I’ve never made a record so fast in my life,” White said. “I didn’t know it was humanly possible, but like I said, it was so easy. The music was easy to make. The spirit was there and the songs were there. It was just a blast.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.