There's no doubt that Phil Vassar is the complete ringmaster of his new album, Traveling Circus. He co-wrote all its songs, produced it single-handedly and recorded it with his own road band.
But don't let the title fool you. While there are moments of hilarity and hell-raising -- notably "Bobbi With an I" and "Tequila Town" -- this is seriously contemplative music in which Vassar ponders not just the meaning of life but also some of its emotionally crippling and redemptive moments.
"Life is precious, man," says the 44-year-old troubadour. "And every day I realize that more and more. Take what's going on in Haiti. Life's so fragile. It can just be blown out like a candle in an instant. The thing I realize -- especially with my daughters [Haley, 10, and Presley, 5] -- is that you've got a choice: You can be happy or sad. You really can. I choose to be happy whenever I can be. ... I take life seriously, but I don't take it too seriously."
Vassar spoke with CMT.com just before heading out for his first tour of Europe, which took him to stages in England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Italy. In early March, he'll make his Australian debut.
"It's something I've always wanted to do," he says, "and I finally got the chance to do it."
Unfortunately for Vassar, just as his album was being released in mid-December (which was questionable timing in itself because of the holiday season), his record label -- Universal South -- was undergoing an organizational upheaval by uniting with Toby Keith's Show Dog Records to form the Show Dog-Universal label.
"It was mayhem," he recalls. Traveling Circus debuted at a less than stellar No. 29 and has sold only tepidly since. Nonetheless, Vassar says he counts it a plus that he's on a label that now includes Keith and Trace Adkins.
The depth of Traveling Circus may have something to do with the seasoned co-writers Vassar worked with, including such lyrical heavyweights as Jeffrey Steele, Kelley Lovelace, Charlie Black, Craig Wiseman, Tim Nichols and Kenny Chesney.
In various configurations, they take on the subjects of doing the best with the hand you're dealt ("Lemonade"), living with bittersweet memories ("Everywhere I Go," "I Will Remember You," "A Year From Now"), being an everyday hero ("John Wayne"), watching a child grow up ("She's on Her Way"), keeping romance alive ("Save Tonight for Me") and the shameful decline of a once popular musical sub-genre ("Where Have All the Pianos Gone").
Probably the most forceful song on the album, though -- the opening cut called "Life" -- is one Vassar penned on his own. "Baby, you and me we're gonna drink it all up," he chants, "make a lot of love and have a little fun called life."
The Traveling Circus tag was an afterthought, Vassar explains.
"It's just kind of what I've always called [our band] every time we've hit the road for the last 10 years," he explains. "If you know our guys, you know why I call it that. It's a fun bunch."
Given his aim for the album, it was only natural that he take over as sole producer.
"I've produced every record I've ever done, but I've always done it with someone [else]," he says. "I thought it was time to get with the guys, go in and just do this record ourselves. We have our own way of doing things."
One of his first decisions as producer was enlisting his own band instead of relying on studio musicians as he's done heretofore.
"I think studio musicians are the best in the world" he offers. "But, you know, when you've got the same guys playing on everybody's records with the same producers, I don't care how good they are, they're going to play the same stuff.
"I thought what I really want to do is get a really live sound. People come to see us and say, 'You're incredible live. When are you going to get that on your record?' I think we did this time."
Vassar recorded the album over a five-month period, during which he whittled his original list of around 25 songs to a more manageable 11. It doesn't bother him, he says, that he usually records more songs than he uses on each album.
"The cool thing about it is that a good song, hopefully, will stick around forever," he says. "They never go bad. You can always come back to them."