Phil Vassar

Lucky As Me

Hard work, good timing and a
lot of talent put Phil Vasser
atop the country charts

PHIL VASSAR ('85) can vividly recall his first night as the opening act for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw on their Soul to Soul tour. "I remember being out there, just me and my piano and 20- to 25,000 people. I was playing and singing and I looked up and saw myself on this giant scoreboard and thought 'this is unbelievable!'"

Believe it. These days, Vassar is often the headline act. After years of writing for other artists, his album Phil Vassar has produced two No. 1 hits: Carlene and Just Another Day in Paradise. A third and fourth song, Rose Bouquet and Six Pack Summer hit the Top Ten, and at this writing, a fifth single, That's When I Love You, is busy climbing the charts. Vassar co-wrote all 11 songs on the album.

Not bad for a guy who barely knew how to play piano, much less write a song, when he moved to Nashville in 1986. Maybe music was just in his blood. Vassar's father was a singer who performed at a restaurant he owned in Lynchburg. Vassar grew up listening to all kinds of music. "We definitely listened to country in my household. George Jones was one of my dad's favorites. But there were a lot of different kinds of music in my house. One of my sisters was a metal-head; we listened to classical, pop, everything."

But Vassar didn't pursue music as a kid because he was too interested in sports. His athletic ability eventually earned him a track scholarship to JMU. To keep peace with his dad, he majored in business management. But his heart wasn't really in it. He took as many music classes as he could fit into his schedule and even joined the Madisonians for a year before deciding a college degree would just have to wait. Music City was calling his name.

He found a furnished apartment outside Nashville, got a job bartending, and started writing songs and learning to play piano. He also had to knock on a lot of doors. "I started going into places and saying 'Let me play here. I'll bring my piano and set up in the corner and we'll have fun;' and over the years, I developed a big following in Nashville. I would do just about any song I could, and it helped me learn how to entertain. I learned how
to work the crowd."

In 1996, Vassar bought his own place, Hard Day's Nightclub, where he was the main attraction. "You call that job security," he grins. "It was a lot of fun, a great experience. I had a place to play and showcase my songs. It was really awesome."

One night, Vassar performed a song he wrote with a bartender friend. Englebert Humperdinck's manager was in the audience and heard Once in Awhile. "He said, 'I love that song! Who wrote that? Where did you get that?' and I said 'I wrote it.' He said 'Well, Englebert's getting ready to cut another album. Could you send me that song?' I said 'Sure.' not thinking anything would ever come of it. That's the first time
I ever got a song recorded."

It certainly wasn't the last. Over the next few years big names like Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, JoDee Messina and Colin Raye had big hits with Phil Vassar songs. Vassar's talents earned him the ASCAP songwriter of the year award in 1999, but he admits it's hard to let someone else record your work. "It's like turning over your child. But I've been lucky. I've never gotten a cut back and said 'Wow, that's terrible.' I've been very surprised. It's always fun to see how someone else is going to interpret your song and for the most part, they've always stayed really close to the demo that I recorded."

Still, hearing other people sing his songs on the radio wasn't enough for Vassar. His dream was to record his own songs, and in 1998 Arista offered him a contract. Vassar was back home in Lynchburg to promote his first single, Carlene, when he heard himself on the radio for the first time. "I was staying at a hotel right next to the radio station, because I had to be there first thing in the morning. It was still dark and the radio alarm went off and I woke up to Carlene. It was pretty surreal, but really neat."

Between recording, making music videos and touring, Vassar doesn't have much time to himself. He survives by surrounding himself with people he trusts and loves to be around. His guitar player, Jeff Smith, is one of Vassar's childhood friends from Lynchburg. Scott Huber is a longtime friend who quit working for the Dixie Chicks to become Vassar's road manager. "I went into his club one night to hang out, and he said 'I finally got a record deal.' I said, 'Phil, we need to talk.' I wanted to work with Phil because not only is he extremely talented, he's a great guy. A real star."

Vassar doesn't count himself a star just yet. He still feels humble, even a little out
of place at gatherings with other country music performers. "I'm a performer, that's true ... but I'm still a huge fan. Steve Wariner's one of the reasons I moved to Nashville. ... I just love his music. Kenny Rogers! He's just become a good friend and I could never have imagined that happening. Kenny Rogers calling me on my cell phone ... no way!"

Another big thrill for Vassar: performing at the 2001 Country Music Association Awards in Nashville. Nominated for the Horizon award (an award given to a performer who demonstrates "staying power" in the country music industry), Phil played Just Another Day in Paradise for an elite audience: country music's best and brightest, and millions of TV viewers. The award went to Keith Urban, but Phil called the experience a thrill. "I really didn't expect to win. Keith's a good friend and definitely a talented performer. This just wasn't my year."

Maybe next year. After a debut album with five hit singles, Phil's spending the winter recording his second album, scheduled for release in the spring.

While Vassar definitely considers himself a country artist, he allows himself to step outside the box. He has worked in other genres with Bernie Taupin (of Elton John fame), and Gladys Knight recorded one of his songs. Rob Thomas, lead singer for alternative rockers Matchbox Twenty, CO-wrote and recorded two songs for Vassar's upcoming album.

Vassar laughs, "What is country anyway? It's all changing, which is good because I don't think country would be a very healthy genre if it just stayed the same. Hopefully, I'm one of the artists that can keep country music moving in
a forward direction."

Right now, the sky's the limit. Vassar's been approached to write a movie soundtrack and has been offered some acting roles. "I'll probably do that sometime. I don't think I'll be DeNiro or anything, but it would be lots of fun."

In the meantime, Vassar just keeps cranking out the tunes. He's in demand as
a songwriter, and his touring schedule keeps him hopping from coast to coast. He's living his dream. "I don't think you ever look in the mirror and say 'I've made it!'
It's a marathon, it's not a sprint. You have to keep putting out song after song after song. I'd love to be able to play concerts where I couldn't play all my hits. Can you imagine being Billy Joel or some of those guys? They can't play all their hits in one night."

Still, it ain't so bad being Phil Vassar. "There's not a day I don't wake up, look
up and go 'thank you so much.' I have a wonderful life. I am one lucky man."


Publisher: Montpelier Magazine For Information Contact: montpelier@jmu.edu