Phil Vassar

You’d think a guy and his piano rolling into Nashville wouldn’t be that crazy of an idea, but it didn’t seem like country music was going to give Phil Vassar a chance.
It didn’t matter that other guys with pianos found all kinds of success, but apparently there was a shift in Nashville’s way of thinking in the late 1990s. They didn’t think anyone would be interested. Boy, oh boy, were they dead wrong.
Vassar’s songwriting ability didn’t seem to turn heads at first either, but he wasn’t about to take no for an answer from a label executive who wouldn’t know a good song if he was sitting on it. He shopped a bunch of his songs to other artists like Tim McGraw (“My Next Thirty Years), Alan Jackson (“She’s Right On The Money”), Jo Dee Messina (“Bye, Bye,” and “I’m Alright,”), Kenny Chesney (“Island Boy,”), Blackhawk (“Postmarked Birmingham”), Diamond Rio (“I’m Already Gone”), Collin Raye (“Little Red Rodeo”), and Kenny Rogers (“It’s a Beautiful Life”). So when all those artists had monster hits with Vassar’s songs (and they earned songwriting awards to boot), Nashville changed its tune.
Suddenly a guy playing piano was cool again and his clever, thought-provoking songs were smokin’ hot, making a lot of noise and deserved to be heard by everyone. Since then, his career has seen the release of 10 albums, two ASCAP Songwriter of the Year trophies, a Billboard Country Songwriter of the Year Award, in addition to the countless hits he’s had as a singer and a songwriter.
Vassar has hit the Top 5 seven times with songs like “Carlene,” “Last Day of My Life,” and “American Child” and topped the charts with “In A Real Love” and the perennial favorite “Just Another Day in Paradise.”
Newcomer David Nail had a hit with Vassar’s “The Sound of a Million Dreams” which Billboard named the No. 1 song in their Top 10 Country Songs of 2012.
Vassar continues to churn out lyrics that are often personal, soulful and gutsy, while also offering up fun, infectious melodies that seem to capture the mood of a backyard party with friends.
Speaking of which, Vassar cranks up the volume of summertime with his new version of his most recent album, American Soul. This time, American Soul Summer – Deluxe Edition is all about all things Americans associate with summer—warm breezes, boats floating, waves splashing, ice chests full, burgers on the grill, friends and families toasting marshmallows around a campfire and the music turned up.
The album is also about amping up the freedom Americans take pride in when it comes to its biggest celebration of the summer, Independence Day.
We talked with Phil Vassar about his career, his music and the show he’s bringing to town. Here’s his take…

What have you been up to of late?
Vassar: I had a brand new record that just came out this past week—American Soul Summer Deluxe Summer Edition. I was just in New York City promoting it, and doing all that good stuff. So it’s been a quite busy couple of weeks. Then we were just on a Summer Concert Series on FOX in Time Square on Friday and that was fun. For USO, I did a bunch of stuff for Fleet Week for our troops, too, and that was really fun. I love doing that kind of stuff, too. It was so awesome. They had so much fun. We had a blast hanging out with them. If you want to check out our website, there’s a bunch of pictures of us with the troops and hanging out in the city. I got to take over the USO Instagram for a day and that was kind of fun. I placed myself around New York City for a bit, that was fun.

If the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffett had a love child it would be this record. Talk about what this record means to you personally.
Vassar: That’s awesome, I love it. I love ’em both. I just think for me it’s just good to have new music out there. It has 16 new songs. I write all the time. It’s like I’ve been recording this thing for years and with different labels like Arista, Sony, Universal, Universal South—and with record labels you can really only create when they say you can create…”You can have a record next year on April 16, blah, blah, blah”… and in the meantime? Look, I’m a prolific songwriter. I’ve written a lot of songs and that’s what I do. I like to record ’em. I come home to my house and just start recording them. This is where I cut all my records anyway. So let’s just put some music out and have some fun and I think it’s great. I really love the record and I love the whole process of doing that stuff.

You wrote a lot of songs for other artists like Tim McGraw, Jo De Messina, Blackhawk, Collin Raye and others. What took you so long to make the leap from songwriter to singer?
Vassar: No. I promise, I was a singer way before I was a songwriter. I was doing shows and being a piano player, and there were guys out there with pianos who were successful—Elton John and Billy Joel. But everybody was looking at me like, “country acts just don’t do well with piano.” I was like “Ronnie Milsap is kinda awesome and Jerry Lee Lewis had a great career.” You know, anything different in Nashville and it spooks them. It’s why everything sounds the same, it’s why everybody wears the same thing. It used to be a guy in a cowboy hat, and playing guitar, now it’s a baseball cap and singing about trucks. It’s like Nashville has a real fear of anything that’s not just like everything else. I hate it, but it is just what we are, so, of course, being a piano player it’s like, “well, you’re a piano player, man that just doesn’t work here.” I didn’t understand. Then after I’d written a bunch of No. 1 songs—and the labels hated all of my songs—but when I had six No. 1 songs in one year, they’re like, “Oh, you’re a genius.” I’m like, “They’re the same songs you hated last year and you hated them two years ago.” They are not really forward thinking. It’s just everybody’s trying to keep their job, and not really do their job.

It’s hard to imagine someone in a business office knowing anything about hit songs.
Vassar: They know nothing about music, and that’s just part of it. Artistry and industry rarely meet. Everybody’s worried about money and not worried about making great music and I think in the end, you lose. I think that’s what’s going on. A lot of people have No. 1 songs that go away and nobody will ever hear that song again, instead of “I Walk the Line,” or great songs like Merle Haggard wrote—it’s just interesting—and I love my business. I love going on the road and playing. I mean, being on stage and writing songs and recording—it’s my life. It’s what I love to do. But dealing with radio stations, and big corporate stuff that’s hard to do, ’cause it’s not really real, it’s all about money.

Where did “This Is God” come from?
Vassar: I was on an airplane and I was reading. Of course, I’m on a long flight, and I write a lot of my lyrics on airplanes. Heck, it’s the only time you can sit back and not be bugged by phones going off or having to do this or that or, having to email this or text that. I was reading a magazine—Newsweek, or Time—and it was like, “holy crap, is there any good news anywhere ever?” So it was just that, and I kept reading and it just sort of struck me. I don’t know that I’m a religious person, but I’m a spiritual person, I was just thinking that God must look down and go, “What a bunch of freaks,” or “what a bunch of boneheads. Honestly, what is wrong with you? Why can’t you just love each other instead of fight and kill each other over money or oil or whatever it might be. What the hell is going on?” So that’s where that came from. I didn’t even think about the song, I wrote the lyrics, I cut the song and then my record had already come out and then my label rep—Joe Galante heard the song and he goes, “this is a song everybody needs to hear.” So he basically re-issued my record with “This is God” on it. Then radio really fought it. They said, “this is an anti-war song,” and “our poor troops.” I’m like, “it has nothing to do with that. I’m pro-troops. This is an anti-hate song.” Once again, I have to deal with boneheads like that. They get in the way of something like that, and it’s like “are you kidding me?” So they’re like, “We’re not gonna play it ’cause it’s against our troops,” and I’m like, “I don’t know how the hell you get that, but whatever.”
Is there a song out there you wish you had written?
Vassar: Are you kidding? That’s all I listen to, songs I wish I’d written, like Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, or Elton John, Paul McCartney. There’s a million of them. I sure would have loved to have written “Yesterday.” It’s funny because I think now when you hear a really good song on the radio, it really kind of stops you in your tracks because it’s such a rare thing. It’s like everything is so “I’m riding around and drinking with my friends in a truck,” so when you hear something great it sort of stops you and you go “Wow!”

The days of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” are gone.
Vassar: A friend of mine, who’s one of my favorite songwriters, he said, “You know, I think the difference is now, songs like that used to be our bar. I mean, it used to be, you really had to bring it. You had to write great songs—I mean every song on the record had to be great. Guys like Joe Galante, and other record heads, they were like “that song’s not good enough to be on your record.” Then you’d be like, “You know, they’re right. I could do better than that.” You were held accountable as an artist. He’d say things like, “You’re a really great writer, you should put a better song than that on there.” At first I’d be like, “Ah, man!” Then I’d think, “Damn, you’re right.” So I don’t think there’s any of that any more. Now it’s…”I gotta girl, truck, beer and powerball shots, so we’re good.” How many dirt road songs are there? After the first thousand of them, it’s that kind of thing where they’re all the same and that’s what they want.

Talk about the show you’re bringing to town?
Vassar: I get to stay there a couple of days, so that’s kinda fun ’cause we never get to do that. I love our show, it’s just fun and off the cuff. We don’t have a setlist, we just play what everybody asks for, we take requests. I saw Bruce Springsteen do it one night, and I was like, “I’m gonna do that from now on.” I walk out on stage and I don’t know what I’m gonna start with, then I hit the first song and then we just play. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got 10 records out and we’ll play anything from them. I like that. It’s just fun and it keeps it fresh for us and it’s spontaneous. You see the same guys do the same show every night under the same light and the same head bob in the solo, so the way we do it, keeps it fresh. We do a lot of shows and that way every night it’s different, you never know what you’re gonna get, and we just have fun. We get on stage—my buddy always said, “We don’t get paid for the show, it’s the other 22 hours a day we have to endure.”

How many guys in the band?
Vassar: My band is guitar, bass, drums and me on keyboards, and it’s my favorite configuration I’ve ever had. It’s really fun, so I’m excited about getting down there and rockin’ the free world with you guys.


 

PHIL VASSAR

Riverside Resort, Don’s Celebrity Theatre

Friday-Saturday, June 16-17, 8 p.m. (See Showtimes for tickets)