Phil Vassar had become a full-fledged country music star by the early 2000s, but he didn't follow a typical career path for the country genre. For one thing, he played the piano in addition to singing and writing songs. The piano isn't a common lead instrument in country music; country entertainers have always been an itinerant breed, traveling from barroom to barroom, from fairground to fairground, and a piano isn't easy to transport. Vassar solved that problem with a unique grand piano that could be broken into sections and carried on the underside of his tour bus. Furthermore, Vassar first made his reputation in the country music capital of Nashville, Tennessee, as a songwriter—and the history of country music is littered with the stalled careers of songwriters who failed when they tried to step into the spotlight themselves.
A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, Vassar was born on May 28, 1962. He grew up just outside of that small Virginia city, where his father owned a steakhouse. It would have been hard to spot a future country music star in the young Phil Vassar. At Lynchburg's Brookville High School he was an athletic standout on both the football and track teams, and he didn't especially favor country music—pop singers James Taylor, Elton John, and Billy Joel were among his favorites, as was alternative rocker Michael Stipe of the group REM. The future performer showed his talent mostly at home, where he liked to sing into a microphone improvised from a suitably shaped household utensil such as a hairbrush.
Uneasy with Business Administration Major
After winning a track scholarship, Vassar attended James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and graduated with a degree in business administration. That major, he told the Roanoke Times, "seemed the thing to do at the time," but it didn't really fit the musically creative young man. Vassar added, "I've never even done my own taxes. Not even the short form. I was always afraid I'd mess something up."
Instead of pursuing a business career, therefore, Vassar headed for Nashville in 1987. He wasn't anything like an overnight success. For several years he worked sporadically as a bartender or at other odd jobs. Perhaps inspired by Billy Joel, whose music proved to be the clear model for many of Vassar's own songs, he studied the piano seriously and began to land nightclub work. He wrote songs and landed a contract with a publishing company run by Nashville songwriting veteran Linda Hargrove, but album cuts refused to come and hits weren't even on the horizon.
"I think I was kind of chasing my tail trying to write like everybody else wrote," Vassar told Billboard. The struggling songwriter found stability when he turned to a business he knew: he and a partner opened Nathan's Italian Restaurant in 1995, in the Nashville suburb of Hickory Hollow. There hadn't been any kind of pressure to follow in his father's footsteps; Vassar's father, Phil Sr., had warned him away from the restaurant business and its long hours. Indeed, Vassar had to hold down the position of breakfast cook himself in the restaurant's early days.
Performed at Own Restaurant
The move, however, ended up fitting well with Vassar's larger career plans, for he soon instituted live music and songwriters' nights at the restaurant. Vassar himself became a frequent weekend attraction in front of the microphone. "I could bounce checks to myself," he joked to the Gazette of Colorado Springs. But he was honing his skills at keeping an audience's attention, and diners with jobs in the music industry started to notice the original songs he worked into his set.
The son of pop crooner Engelbert Humperdinck happened to be one of those diners. He brought Vassar's demo tape to his father, who recorded "Once in a While," a song Vassar and a fellow bartender had written in 1996. It was a modest start, but it quickly opened doors as Vassar found his own songwriting voice. "I just started writing songs the way I write songs," he told Billboard. "And all of a sudden, it started working." Vassar was signed as a staff songwriter by the huge EMI conglomerate. He landed songs on albums by some of the biggest names in country music of the late 1990s, including Collin Raye ("Little Red Rodeo"), Jo Dee Messina ("Bye Bye"), Tim McGraw ("For a Little While"), and Alan Jackson ("Right on the Money"). Released as singles, they became major hits.
Vassar garnered several songwriting honors, including Song of the Year for the harmonically artful "Bye Bye" from the ASCAP licensing agency in 1999. But his golden touch with the pen didn't immediately translate into a chance to step into the recording studio himself. The piano that played a central part in some of Vassar's songs was one reason; it was an unfamiliar element in a genre that had evolved from the Hawaiian steel guitars of an earlier age to the electric guitars of rock music. "It's hard for them [the labels]," Vassar reasoned to an Arizona Daily Star reporter. "They see a billion artists. Sometimes it's right under their nose and they never know it. But for me, personally, it probably worked out for the best that it took longer."
Song Inspired by Model Cindy Crawford
Finally Vassar was signed to the Nashville division of the Arista label in 1999, and any doubters were quickly silenced when his debut single, "Carlene," rose into the top five on Billboard 's country singles chart. Vassar constructed the song around two figures who defied the expectations of their high school classmates. The woman portrayed in "Carlene" was loosely modeled on supermodel Cindy Crawford, an academic star when she was young, while the song's male protagonist was a sports star turned songwriter—much like Vassar himself. Vassar was quoted by the Dayton Daily News as saying that as a songwriter he tried to follow the example of "people who wrote about their own lives … without 'mooning and juning' it to death."
"Just Another Day in Paradise" was selected as the followup to "Carlene," and it fit in perfectly with the celebrations of domesticity that had become prominent in country songwriting circles. The song topped Billboard 's country singles chart, and his debut Phil Vassar album spawned several more hits (including the strongly Billy Joel-flavored "Rose Bouquet"). Vassar had become a bona fide star, with national tours of clubs and state fairs lined up for 2001 and 2002. In 2002 he was featured as the opening act on a tour by country superstar Kenny Chesney.
Vassar's second album, American Child, was released that year, and the singer didn't suffer any sophomore slump. The album rose to the number four position on Billboard 's top country albums chart, and two of its individual songs also became hits. Its title track rose into the country top ten, and another hit single, "This Is God," tested so strongly with audiences that the partially distributed album was recalled so that the song could be added on. Vassar's contributions to the boom in patriotic songs that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., were reflective ones. "This Is God" depicted a plea from the deity to stop killing in the name of religion. It spawned a Christian book, also entitled This Is God. In keeping with Vassar's musically eclectic influences, the album featured a guest appearance by rock singer Huey Lewis (on a cover of Lewis's "Workin' for a Living") and songwriting contributions from rockers Rob Thomas (Matchbox 20) and Miles Zuniga (Fastball).
Married to his frequent songwriting partner Julie Wood, Vassar took to writing songs on his tour bus. The couple had two children, daughter Haley and son Presley (named not after the rock and roll pioneer but after Vassar's grandfather). With the late 2004 release of his third album, Shaken Not Stirred, Vassar was ready to take a shot at his ambition "to be the future of country music," expressed two years earlier to the Albuquerque Journal. The album showcased Vassar's piano and his own road band, and it got off to a promising start when Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide pronounced it "Vassar's best record to date."
For the Record . . .
Born on May 28, 1962, in Lynchburg, VA; married songwriting partner, Julie Wood; children: Haley, Presley. Education: James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, bachelor's degree in business administration; studied piano in Nashville, TN.
Performed at own restaurant, Nathan's Italian Restaurant, Hickory Hollow, TN; songs recorded by other artists, including Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina, Collin Raye, and Alan Jackson, 1998-99; signed to Arista Nashville label, 1999; released debut album, Phil Vassar, 2000; released American Child, 2002; released Shaken Not Stirred, 2004.
Awards: Academy of Country Music, Top New Male Vocalist, 2002; American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), songwriter of the year, 1998; Billboard magazine, Songwriter of the Year, 1998.
Addresses: Record company—Arista Nashville, 1400 18th Ave. South, Nashville, TN 37212. Website—Phil Vassar Official Website: http://www.philvassar.com.
Phil Vassar, Arista, 2000.
American Child, Arista, 2002.
Shaken Not Stirred, Arista, 2004.
Albuquerque Journal, September 13, 2002, p. 13.
Arizona Daily Star, May 24, 2002, p. F29.
Billboad, January 8, 2000, p. 31.
Dayton Daily News, January 10, 2003, p. 4.
Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), May 16, 2003, p. GO11.
Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), February 21, 2004, p. E2.
Roanoke Times, February 22, 2000, p. 1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 28, 2004, p. E2.
"Phil Vassar," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (October 22, 2004).
"Phil Vassar Bio," Phil Vassar Official Website, http://www.philvassar.com (October 22, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
"Vassar, Phil." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/vassar-phil
"Vassar, Phil." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/vassar-phil
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