Phil Vassar was happy to play some cover tunes during a recent appearance in Clear Lake, Iowa. After all, the Surf Ballroom is where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played their final show.
“It’s the second time I’ve played there,” Vassar told CMT.com this week. “It was a great crowd. We did ’That’ll Be the Day’ and some of my favorite Buddy Holly songs. It’s a really, really cool deal — the pictures of all the 3 million artists who have played there over the past 50, 60, 70 years. I don’t even know how many years it’s been open.”
Vassar laughs when it’s mentioned that he’ll be performing at a slightly larger venue on July 4.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a stadium. We’ll do stadiums. We’ll do wherever they send us to play.”
He’s the musical headliner for an annual holiday celebration and fireworks display at Heinz Stadium in Pittsburgh. He notes that Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, a major fireworks manufacturer, is headquartered near Pittsburgh.
“If you play Pittsburgh, you’re gonna get a good fireworks show on the Fourth,” he said. “You can count on it.”
“American Child,” Vassar’s Top 10 hit from 2002, is featured on the new compilation, Now That’s What I Call the USA (The Patriotic Country Collection). Other tracks on the collection include Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” Carrie Underwood’s “All-American Girl” and Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town.”
Vassar wrote “American Child” as a personal song about his life and heritage, but he’s happy that many people identify with the spirit of the message. He recalled getting the idea for the song while watching one of his daughters flip through a family photo album.
“She was looking through this old book that had pictures of my dad, who died years ago, and my grandpa, who died in World War II,” he said. “She was asking all these questions and saw a picture of me as a kid in my little baseball uniform. I said, ’You know, this is the American dream — what I’ve lived.’ It really sort of hit me between the eyes because it is — to come from nothing and to make something of yourself. You’re only limited by what your mind limits you to, at least in a democracy. I’ve always liked the song.”
Vassar has never consciously tried to write a patriotic song because of the challenges it presents.
“Subject matter is always the illusive thing,” he explained. “It’s like trying to find something interesting to write about — love or this and that. Everybody’s done it a trillion times. Just trying something different or interesting to write about is half the battle.”
Besides that, he says the ultimate patriotic song and performance have already been defined by Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful.”
“After you hear Ray Charles do it, you never want to try to sing it again,” he said, although he acknowledges he often performs part of “America the Beautiful” as an introduction to “American Child.”
Late last year, Vassar’s Traveling Circus album was released while Universal South was merging with Toby Keith’s Show Dog Records to create the Show Dog-Universal label. He says the overall recording industry is still experiencing a lot of upheaval and uncertainty.
“It’s just kind of crazy the way things are at the labels right now,” he said. “All I’m doing is playing shows and trying to be a songwriter. And that’s all I can do. I think so much was done wrong in our business that we’re reaping that right now. Labels are closing, and everybody is trying to figure out what end is up. It’s like Wall Street. There’s so much greed.”
Vassar agrees with those who say part of the problem was the labels’ initial reluctance to embrace the concept of paid downloads instead of clinging to the CD as the primary means of distributing music.
“If they had done something about that to begin with and negotiated some deals and had some forethought,” he said. “But nobody did. Now I think everybody’s just hanging onto their jobs. There’s a lot of that going on with people waiting for the ax to fall.
“As a singer, as a performer, I just go all over the place and play music. Folks come to see us play, and I just write songs. The songs are going to find a place, I suppose. It really is an interesting time. I think it’s exciting, though. A lot of people are really frightened about it, but I think that with times like these come great things.”