Luckily, Phil Vassar didn’t have to move that gigantic grand piano into the middle of a wheat field for his latest video, “American Child.”
Unluckily, four other men did.
“The funny thing about it is, I moved into my new house the week after that video shoot,” Vassar says. “And the same guys who moved that piano out to the field, moved my piano from one house to the other. They were like, ‘Wait a minute. I know you! Did you just do a video in a field?’”
“American Child,” the title track and first single from Vassar’s new album, stands out as his most autobiographical song yet. In it, Vassar recounts growing up in “Nowhere, Virginia” (actually Lynchburg) and reminisces about the birth of his daughter (who appears in the video) and the grandfather he never met.
“The song is about being able to come from anywhere and do anything,” he says in a conference room at his record label, enjoying a rare day off the road. “The message is simple, but I’m proud of the song. Every time I sing the verse about ‘Seven pounds, three ounces, she’s got my nose,’ I just grin.”
Vassar, 40, moved to Nashville in 1987 to pursue a singing career and later attempted songwriting to make himself more well-rounded as an artist. Within a few years, he purchased a nightclub in the basement of a Ramada Inn south of Nashville. He called the club Hard Day’s Night, where he sang a mix of originals and cover songs.
In true Nashville fashion, his bartender of two years turned out to be future country star Carolyn Dawn Johnson . His backing band — which got a major label deal as Sixwire — recently landed their first country hit, “Look at Me Now.” Vassar looks forward to assembling a tour with them.
“I think every entertainer should work the clubs,” Vassar says firmly. “I think it should be a prerequisite. But it isn’t. I feel sorry for artists that didn’t get a chance to play clubs and have to learn how to entertain. It’s so important. The audiences tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong every night — what works and doesn’t work — before you have to do it in front of 10,000 people. It’s a good time, too. It’s fun to go back every once in a while and play.”
During the time he operated Hard Day’s Night, Vassar also distributed demo recordings of his upbeat originals around Music Row. Two of his songs, “Bye Bye” and “I’m Alright,” helped establish Jo Dee Messina as a mainstay on the country charts. Meanwhile, success with Tim McGraw (“For a Little While”), Alan Jackson (“Right on the Money”) and Collin Raye (“Little Red Rodeo”) gave Vassar the freedom to quit the nightclub business for good.
“There were definitely nights when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Am I doing the right thing?’ But it turned out for the best. I wouldn’t trade any of those days for anything. Well, maybe some of them,” he chuckles. “But I’m telling you, for the most part, everything was fun.”
Fortunately, he kept “Just Another Day in Paradise” for himself, despite interest from other artists. Taken from his 2000 self-titled debut album, the light-hearted look at domestic bliss marked Vassar’s first No. 1 as a solo artist. His other Top 10 hits include “Carlene,” “Six-Pack Summer” and “That’s When I Love You.” The album was recently certified gold (for shipment of 500,000 units), thanks in part to nearly constant touring.
“Rose Bouquet,” another hit from Vassar’s debut album, was given a soulful spin by Gladys Knight on her 2001 album, At Last.
“I heard that on an airplane,” he recalls. “That’s how I found out I got the cut. I was listening to the in-flight radio, and it said, ‘Gladys Knight and her new album.’ I was listening down to it, because I love Gladys Knight. The song started and I thought, ‘How do I know this song? Oh, it’s ‘Rose Bouquet!’”
American Child, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard country album chart, may lend itself to an equally long life due to an abundance of radio-ready material. Co-writers include Annie Roboff (“This Kiss”), Craig Wiseman (co-writer of “Just Another Day in Paradise”) and Rob Thomas (co-writer of Santana’s “Smooth” and frontman for rock band Matchbox Twenty.) Especially perky is “Houston,” an energetic song Vassar wrote with his wife, Julie.
“It’s a song about being commitment-phobic, which is where I was when I wrote that record,” he says. “It’s not meant to save the whales, but it’s fun. I like to put a little bit of humor in a song. I’m probably one of those people who, even in bad times or nervous times, will crack a joke. That’s the way I am with songwriting. If at all possible, I’ll try to add something funny.”
But beneath that easygoing manner lies a determination that brought Vassar from a basement bar to festival stages all across America.
“For me, I’m a worker,” he says. “I like to work. I’m just going to keep on making records until they tell me not to do it anymore, and then I’ll keep on writing songs until nobody wants to record them anymore. And then hopefully I’ll end up on a beach somewhere in a Tiki bar singing Jimmy Buffett songs.”