Phil Vassar surveys his new Greatest Hits Volume 1 album with considerable pride and satisfaction. First of all, it demonstrates that he’s survived long enough to create a body of genuinely popular tunes. Second, it’s afforded him the opportunity to put his own vocal stamp on songs that he wrote but which other artists turned into hits.
The album, which barreled onto the Billboard country chart at No. 2 its first week out, contains 15 songs, including all of Vassar’s Top 10 singles (“Carlene,” “Just Another Day in Paradise,” “Six-Pack Summer,” “That’s When I Love You,” “American Child” and “In a Real Love”), plus such new material as “The Last Day of My Life” (his current hit that has already reached No. 5) and “The Woman in My Life” (his next single). The only selection on the album that Vassar had no part in writing is Jon McElroy and Vince Melamed’s seductive “I’ll Take That as a Yes (The Hot Tub Song).”
But the bonus is hearing how Vassar interprets the songs that are now identified with other artists — specifically “My Next Thirty Years” and “For a Little While” (hits for Tim McGraw), “Bye, Bye” and “I’m Alright” (Jo Dee Messina) and “Little Red Rodeo” (Collin Raye).
“Getting to cut all these other songs that were hits for Tim, Jo Dee and all these guys,” says Vassar, “tied it up into a nice, neat little package so people know where I’ve been, where I am right now and where I’m going.” Vassar is also pleased that his label, Arista Records, tagged the album “Volume 1,” since it suggests other volumes of hits will follow. “I thought ‘Volume 1’ was kind of cute,” he chuckles.
It is still something of a sore point with Vassar that he was initially discouraged from recording what proved to be some of his strongest compositions.
“I kept trying to get a record deal with all those songs I had — ‘I’m Alright,’ ‘Bye, Bye,’ ‘My Next Thirty Years,’ ‘For a Little While,’ ‘Little Red Rodeo.’ I think there were five or six songs on the demo — and the labels hated all of them. They said I needed to get another writer to write my songs, wear a hat, play guitar and all that other crap.”
The piano-playing Vassar migrated to Nashville from his native Virginia in the late 1980s after having had some success with his own band. In spite of that success, he felt he was spinning his wheels. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this forever.’ You can get caught in a trap where you make pretty good money. I said, ‘You know, I’m going to Nashville. Anybody want to come with me?’ And everybody said, ‘Nope.'”
Instead of making exploratory trips to Nashville, as most aspiring artists and songwriters do, Vassar simply leaped in. “I found a Motel 6 and stayed there for about four days until I found an apartment,” he says.
“I got to town and the first thing I saw was a [songwriter-in-the-round showcase] with Don Schlitz, Mike Reid and, I think, Paul Overstreet,” Vassar recalls. “I just wanted to turn around and go back home after I heard all those songs. I was like, ‘Good grief! This is ridiculous.’ Once I wrote a lot of bad songs, I started writing some pretty good ones.”
It took him nearly 10 years to nail down a record deal, during which time he learned the music business ropes and refined his songwriting. In the five years before his first single, “Carlene,” came out in 1999, he owned and managed a restaurant and nightclub in the Hickory Hollow section of Nashville.
As the new album illustrates, one of Vassar’s favorite themes is the passage of time. His tone on this subject ranges from matter-of-fact to wistful.
“You always reach milestones in your life,” he observes. “Something will happen. You lose a friend or you graduate from high school or college or whatever. There’s always these little marks that you have to cross over and go on to the next place. I look back a lot at what I’ve done in my life and where I’m going.”
Last year, Vassar turned 40, but he says it wasn’t a traumatic passage. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so much about it anymore,” he says. “It’s just another one of those milestones, you know. I figure I’ve got too much going on in my life to worry about how old I am.”
In 2005, Vassar did 153 shows, and he estimates he’ll do another 140 this year. Then there are those occasional drop-ins at fraternity houses along the way for some post-show partying. “It’s always fun to do stuff like that to just kind of mix it up a little bit,” he says. “I love to play, and I love the people. I love hanging out with everybody. It makes the job fun and not so mundane.”
All the touring, he confesses, takes a toll on his songwriting. “I kind of write in spurts,” he explains. “I haven’t written anything for a couple of months. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll start back. I’ll have [songwriting] friends out on the road with me, and I’ll start recording for a new album in the fall.”
In June, Vassar reports, he’ll film a music video for “The Woman in My Life,” which he co-wrote with his wife, Julie Wood-Vassar. In the meantime, he’ll be looking into the distance and thinking about Greatest Hits Volume 2.