Lari White met Tom Hanks at a crossroads.
He had come back from the dead, a volleyball and hand-painted FedEx box riding shotgun. She was the smiling Samaritan who gave good directions, whose kind smile and earthy allure caught his eye.
What Hanks saw in that memorable scene at the end of 2000’s Cast Away was exactly what so many had seen in White since her days in Dunedin. She was a prodigious young singer turned Nashville sensation, a talent whose warm voice and tender spirit invited in friends and fans alike.
Lari White — it rhymes with starry night, she would tell people — died Tuesday after a short battle with a rare abdominal cancer. She was 52.
Her life wound from the Gulf of Mexico to the Grand Ole Opry to the Great White Way. She played with George Strait and produced Toby Keith, wrote for Tammy Wynette, recorded with Julio Iglesias, sang the songs of Johnny Cash on Broadway. She notched a few Top 10 singles — That’s My Baby, Now I Know, That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love) — and sang on three Grammy-winning albums of Southern gospel and country.
Artists from Charlie Daniels to Richard Marx to Lady Antebellum poured out sympathies on social media. White was "a tremendous talent and such a bright spirit," wrote Suzy Bogguss; "a joy to write and record with," wrote Travis Tritt, "a pioneer and a dear friend," wrote Rascal Flatts’ Gary LeVox. Wrote Lin-Manuel Miranda, who once taught alongside her at a summer songwriting camp: "You’ve never met a kinder, more talented songwriter."
In Dunedin, where her stardom seemed preordained, the memories run much deeper.
As a baby, she lost her left pinky to an electric household fan. That didn’t stop Larry White from teaching his daughter to play the guitar. He just had her strum left-handed — pick in her left fingers, strings in her right. She was singing with the family’s gospel band at craft fairs and community centers by age 4, and was a competition-winning classical pianist not long thereafter.
From San Jose Elementary through Dunedin High School, her gifts were hard to miss. As a freshman, years before being voted class president and homecoming queen, she floored her friends at a school-wide talent show, singing Janis Ian’s At Seventeen with such vulnerability that "the entire high school auditorium became silent," said Janet Ewell, one of her best friends since first grade. "No one breathed, no one moved. All you could hear was the sound of Lari’s voice and that piano. At that moment, you knew."
White went to the University of Miami on a full ride, studying voice and music engineering, and by 19 was singing backup for visiting artists like Iglesias and Barry Gibb. In 1988, she earned her first major-label contract by winning the TV talent show You Can Be a Star. Six years later, she married another Nashville songwriter, Chuck Cannon, and rode her breakthrough album Wishes into primetime, singing for Leno and Letterman and landing small roles in TV and film.
Family and friends in Dunedin watched with pride as she spoke in interviews about the small Florida town where it all began.
"She took a lot of pride in where she came from," said Dunedin Mayor Julie Bujalski, another classmate. "I know she made a life in Nashville, but Dunedin was a place that she loved coming home to, and we loved having her. She represented us well as a person with a very kind soul and a lot of light."
The record industry is fickle, and in 1996 White left her label, RCA. She managed a couple more Top 20 hits in Stepping Stone and Tritt’s Helping Me Get Over You, but her career took other twists and turns, including the role in Cast Away and a gig co-producing Keith’s 2006 album White Trash With Money — a rare credit for a female artist working with a big Nashville star. She kept recording and touring, but also started a family and worked behind the scenes.
Anytime she came home, city leaders would honor their prodigal daughter. In 1996, Gov. Lawton Chiles declared Feb. 9 Lari White Day in the State of Florida, the culmination of Lari White Week in Dunedin. She sang at the city’s centennial in 1999, and in 2013 received the key to the city.
For White, reconnecting with friends was a highlight of each trip. She was the one coordinating reunions at Edgewater Park or Honeymoon Island, where an hour would lapse into three just like that. She sang at friends’ weddings and scooped their kids onto her lap to sing That’s My Baby at the piano. In recent years she’d play house concerts, intimate gatherings for people close to her heart.
She often invited Dunedin friends to visit her in Nashville or on tour; before her cancer diagnosis last fall, she was organizing a group mountain getaway. During their four years of high school French, White and Ewell promised they would one day see Paris together. They took that trip last spring with their daughters, overwhelmed by Palm Sunday Mass at Notre Dame.
Last weekend, Ewell was among those who traveled to Nashville for White’s final days at home, out of hospice care. Friends from both Dunedin and Nashville swapped stories about the Lari they each knew.
"She brought people together, united people with love and positivity," Ewell said. "She could have been a big star and made people feel like she was shinier and brighter than they were. She never did. She always made sure that everyone felt like they were important."
It shined through in that scene at the end of Cast Away. White grinned wide, hopped in her red pickup with the dog in the back and dusted up that sandy Texas road. The credits rolled as Hanks watched her go, smiling through squinting eyes, certain he’d just met someone special.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.