Phil Vassar has always considered himself a songwriter first—even though he has a 20-year solo career numbering 10 albums (including compilations and other albums) and countless tours.
But this winter, Vassar the artist is doing more to showcase “Vassar the songwriter” than any point since his self-titled debut album arrived in 2000. First, there is an early 2020 tour that will find Vassar playing in a stripped back format that will allow him to freely interact with audiences and share stories about the songs he performs.
“I mean, how fun is that?” Vassar says of the tour. “It’s like be a songwriter again, and just get up there and it’s all about the song and not how many video screens and lights, you know what I’m saying. It’s all about the song again. I love it.”
In addition, Vassar will soon release a new album, “Stripped Down,” that was recorded in fairly minimalist settings.
“It’s very underproduced instead of overproduced,” he says of the album. “You know, we tend to get in the studio, and just because we can, (we’ll) have 20 people cutting and doing overdubs and this and that. This is just flat out, some of the songs are just me and an acoustic guitar or me and some band sounds or something, like a little loop to kind of get the groove going. But I really like it—a lot.”
Many a songwriter will say the true test of a song is whether it holds up in a solo acoustic format, which means “Stripped Down” should be as much of a showcase for Vassar’s songwriting as for his singing and piano playing—and a significant departure from his other albums, which have typically featured pretty full arrangements and a good number of uptempo, feel-good songs.
Along with newly written material, “Stripped Down” will include two songs Vassar wrote two decades ago that come from a stack of unreleased compositions he’s accumulated over the years.
“It’s funny, to one of my friends out in California, I said, ‘Listen to this tune’ and it’s one of the songs called ‘I Won’t Forget You,’ and she was weeping, I mean, crying,” Vassar recalls. “She goes ‘This is the best song you’ve ever written.’ And she’s a writer and a friend of mine, and I said, ‘You know, I love this song. It just never made sense to cut it on one of these other records.’
“And there’s another song called ‘Perfect World’ that I wrote,” he elaborated. “It’s really sort of poignant right now. It kind of talks about politics, the world and all of this stuff, but it’s fun. It’s a funny kind of a tongue-in-cheek song. So I love it. Those two songs along with the other stuff that’s brand new, I really like it.”
“Stripped Down” will arrive at a point where Vassar’s musical life is quite different than it was in the first decade and a half of his career.
He came to Nashville in the early 1990s, and found success toward the end of the decade as a songwriter. Artists who had hits with Vassar songs included Collin Raye (“Little Red Rodeo”), Alan Jackson (“Right on the Money”), Tim McGraw (“For a Little While”), Jo Dee Messina (“Bye Bye, Alright”) and Blackhawk (“Postmarked Birmingham”).
But Vassar always had his eye on being an artist in his own right, and in 1999 he was signed by Arista Nashville. He had considerable success, beginning with his self-titled debut album, which kicked out four top 10 hits, including the chart-topping “Just Another Day in Paradise.”
His follow-up albums, 2002’s “American Child” and 2004’s “Shaken Not Stirred,” were also successful, adding five more hit singles, including the No. 1 hit, “In A Real Love,” to his catalog. For a time, Vassar looked like he might be able to make the leap into the top ranks of country stars, but his career leveled off with the 2008 album, “Prayer of a Common Man” and 2009’s “Travelling Circus.” They still produced hits, but didn’t take Vassar to a new level. After that, Vassar stepped back from recording, with 2016’s “American Soul” being his only other full-length studio album of original material.
Vassar likes his career where it is now as an independent artist with a catalog of hits (10 No. 1 singles and 26 top 40 hits as a songwriter and artist overall) that enable him to remain a reliable concert draw. He doesn’t miss the pressures that came with trying to get chart-topping singles or having to cater to various interests in the industry.
“You know it’s funny, I was listening to that song ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ the other day, the Glen Campbell song, which I love,” Vassar says, before singing a famous couplet from the tune.
“‘There’ll be a load of compromising/On the road to my horizon,’ I’m like holy crap, no truer words have ever been said. And it’s true. But now we can kind of do things at our own (pace).
“Now I can play because I want to, not because I have to,” he says. “I don’t have to get up and worry about if I’m going to make my house payment or whatever, if my kids are going to go to school. You can just go out and play because you love it, and I love it more than I ever have because of that.”
So Vassar continues to make touring a priority, and his acoustic tour this winter is a kind of show he’s never taken out on a tour.
“I’ll do weekends like that or something like that every once in awhile, but this is like a real major (acoustic tour),” Vassar says. “We’re starting on the East Coast and I think we end up on the West Coast, literally in L.A., San Diego and Phoenix. So, we’ll work our way all the way across the country.”
Vassar won’t be performing alone on this tour, though.
“My guitar player (Jeff Smith) comes with me. He’s kind of a permanent fixture,” Vassar said. “He’s great. He’s my musical brother, you know. He tours with me everywhere…And in certain markets, Jack Tempchin’s going to play with me, in San Diego. I mean, he only wrote ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling,’ and some of the Eagles’ songs and ‘Slow Dancing.’ That’s one of the greatest songs ever. Just in different markets I’m going to have different people maybe get up with me and play, and some local guys.”
He’ll also have another special guest—his vintage Roland drum machine, which he used to set beats and tempos when he wrote some of his biggest hits. The Roland, it turns out, is no stranger to live performing, either.
“I used to play these bars where it was just me with this drum machine and we were killing it,” Vassar says. “I called it Roscoe. (I’d say) ‘Me and Roscoe are rocking the house tonight.’ It was so much fun. That’s how I sort of built my world, just me and that drum machine. I’ll tell you what, I learned a lot about entertaining and writing and all of that stuff in those bars. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Phil Vassar, Humphreys Backstage Live, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island, 6:30 p.m. Friday, February 14, tickets start at $49, humphreysrestaurant.com.