Phil Vassar is the Billy Joel of country music. But not just because he plays the piano.
Vassar is also an ace songwriter, one of country music’s finest. Before he embarked on a solo career in 1999, he wrote hits for Jo Dee Messina (“Bye, Bye,” “I’m Alright”), Alan Jackson (“Right on the Money”), Neal McCoy (“I Was”), Tim McGraw (“For a Little While,” “My Next Thirty Years”), and many others.
Vassar scored 19 Top 40 hits of his own, but never rose to the level of arena headliner.
This works in his fans’ favor. Vassar’s live energy, which evokes that of Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard in their prime, is best enjoyed in a smaller venue.
Vassar will perform at one of those smaller venues, the Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw, on March 20.
Staying healthy for the fans
The fact that Vassar, at 55, can still maintain that live energy over long stretches on the road is most impressive. This achievement does not happen serendipitously.
“I don’t drink or any of that,” Vassar said in a phone interview. “I take care of myself. I don’t smoke. If you see (a performer) out there who is indulging too much in their food or their drink or their vices, I don’t think that bodes well for them in this business.”
Keith Richards is presumably the exception to the rule.
Vassar got into the business before the music industry’s major label system crumbled and before the rise of digital entertainment changed the way musicians go about getting heard. He has built up a loyal fanbase that will fill seats wherever he decides to play.
Vassar records albums in his home studio in Nashville and releases music at whatever pace he chooses.
“I love where I am at in my career,” he said. “I don’t have to answer to anyone. I can make any kind of music I want.”
ON his own
One of the more frustrating aspects of being a major label artist, Vassar said, was the lag time between recording and release.
“Back in the day,” he said, “when I was on [Arista Nashville], they’d say, ‘Well, your record won’t be out until next Nov. 18.’ You’re on a docket with 30 or 40 other artists. I never felt like I could get music out quick enough.”
Vassar continues to collaborate with new songwriters — which is to say, songwriters that are new to him. These songwriting sessions don’t always conjure magic.
“At least you have somebody to go eat lunch with,” he said, laughing. “And sometimes you come back from lunch with an idea.”
One of Vassar’s more interesting recent collaborators was his daughter, Haley. They co-wrote the song “Where the End Starts” for his most recent album, Stripped Down. Haley is currently a junior at Belmont University studying business and music.
“She’s a sponge,” Vassar said. “She has grown up in the music business her whole life. She’s unfazed by the whole thing. She just started writing songs. I was like, ‘Holy crap! You wrote this?’”
Vassar’s younger daughter, Presley, is also interested in music. And in sleeping late.
Following in their dad’s footsteps was never anything that Vassar advocated for.
“I sure never encouraged them,” he said, laughing. “I told Haley, ‘I put you through private school for this? For you to do what I do?’”
Vassar has been a single dad to those young women since they were little girls. Juggling parenthood and a music career was not easy.
“They had to grow up fast,” Vassar said. “My youngest is still with her mother a lot more than with me. We had to make it work. Everybody had to have each other’s backs.
“It’s a great experience to watch these kids grow up and become these little humans,” he said, laughing.
New Talk show
One of Vassar’s more exciting new ventures is one he doesn’t have to leave the house for. All he has to do is descend some stairs.
He is hosting a musical talk show called Songs from the Cellar for the Circle Network.
Like Daryl Hall’s web series “Live From Daryl’s House,” it consists mainly of interviews and jam sessions with well-known musicians.
The show is shot in the wine cellar of Vassar’s antebellum house in Nashville. Vassar got the idea for the show while he was hanging out in the cellar with John Rich of Big & Rich.
“One day, I just put this great Persian rug down there and there was this table and we sat around and started rapping,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘This would be great if I had cameras on while we were doing this sort of thing,’ and Rich said, ‘Yeah, you should do that.’”
Guests during the first season, which recently finished airing, included Rich, R&B guitarist Steve Cropper, Peter Frampton, Tommy Shaw of Styx, and (of all people) Mike Tyson.
“It’s on such a fledgling little network, but I think it’s going to be awesome,” Vassar said.
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