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Country Music's Rising Star Comes to Town

By Gary Wien

Phil Vassar's father gave him two pieces of advice for life. He told him, don't go into the restaurant business and don't get into the music business. So, being a good son, Phil did both.

Years later, it's clear to see that Phil made the right decision. He's not only had several of his songs become hits by some of country music's biggest stars but he's become a rising star himself. And he might have only started his climb as his music is a prime candidate to crossover into the pop/rock world as well.

Phil Vassar grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. His father was a singer who performed in night clubs and restaurants and ultimately owned a restaurant of his own. Phil grew up watching his father and wanted to be a singer from as early as he can remember. As a kid, he says he saw the glory of being a performer, but not the struggle.

"My dad saw it," said Phil Vassar. "That's why he wasn't supportive at all. And looking back now - having two little girls - I think I would probably go about things a little differently than he did. I think he just understood how hard it was to succeed in this business. It's rare. I don't even know what the percentage of failure is, and I don't want to know."

Phil was a star track and football athlete in school, ultimately getting a scholarship to run track at James Madison University. Part of his competitive spirit is evident in his musical career as well. He's got a drive to succeed; a drive to be the best that has led him to where he is today.

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"I don't think I'm over the top competitive or anything, but I think sports did install some sort of competitive attitude and that's definitely rolled over into my music career," he said. "I don't like to get beat. I mean, music and athletics are so different. Generally when I ran track, the fastest guy or the best jumper would win. In music, it's not that way at all. The best musicians are generally the ones that are playing in a jazz bar somewhere in New York City that nobody ever sees."

Music eventually became the main goal in Vassar's life and he left school to move to Nashville. The Music City is always a catch-22 for artists because you can't throw a rock without hitting a songwriter or performer there; if you make it there, it can make your career, but the competition is fierce.

"You want to go where the best are to be the best," explained Vassar. "I mean, who cares if you're the best in Lynchburg? It was nice and I had a good time there, but if I was going to make it any farther I had to get out of there. My dad even said that. He said 'You're wasting time playing in all these bands around here. You need to go to Nashville or New York or L.A.' And he was right."

Vassar's music is unique because it's largely piano-based - something you don't normally find in country music. Ironically, when he first started playing live he really didn't know how to play piano well. At first, he would perform as just a singer with other musicians accompanying him. Eventually, he started throwing himself into clubs and restaurants and learned how to be a piano player.

"I got to the point where I was just playing solo gigs and piano bars every night of the week," said Vassar. "That was schooling for me. I learned a lot about myself and about my playing and learned how to entertain. So many of these entertainers now are people who got record deals and they've never even played in front of anybody. It's ridiculous!"

So after not following his father's advice to avoid the music business, Vassar then found himself as one of the owners of a restaurant as well. The restaurant had a cool little club in it that Vassar named "A Hard Day's Niteclub" after the Beatles song. Every weekend, Vassar's band would play and there were songwriter nights where artists like Collin Raye, Jo Dee Messina and Tim McGraw would pop in and actually sing with the songwriters.

It was an unbelievable time for an artist like Vassar. Some day you'll most likely see a movie of the week about his rise to fame and it'll be hard to believe some of the scenes during this period just before he became a household name among songwriters and country music fans. Vassar actually worked in the restaurant cooking breakfast at 6am until 10 before throwing off his apron and heading to a song writing appointment. In fact, he was still doing this as songs of his were climbing the charts!

"I don't think I slept for two years!" laughed Vassar. "I really don't. Looking back now, I think I proved to myself that I could really do it. It's like sometimes you think 'I'll never be able to pull this off' but I did."

His first big break came when Collin Raye recorded "Little Red Rodeo". That was Vassar's first number one as a songwriter. About a month later, he returned to the top of the charts with Jo Dee Messina's version of "Bye Bye". And from there the accolades as a songwriter started to come. He was named country songwriter of the year by ASCAP and had hits recorded by artists like Alan Jackson ("Right on the Money"), Tim McGraw ("For a Little While") and BlackHawk ("Postmarked Birmingham").

"My dream was always to be a recording artist, not to be a songwriter at all," he explained. "I just really focused on my piano playing, got better and then focused on my songs. Of course the labels and the A&R people - nobody liked any of the songs I was writing. I think of the six songs that I had on my demo tape, five became number one songs for other people eventually."

His hard work and patience paid off with the release of his self-titled debut album in 2000. The record was an instant hit with country fans. The first single from that record ("Carlene") broke into the top five while the followup ("Just Another Day In Paradise") became his first number one as a performer.

His latest record, Shaken Not Stirred, was released in September. Phil will be making a stop at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on February 12th. This is a rather unique place for a country performer to play since we live in one of the few areas of the country where there isn't a single country station. But Phil's music should appeal to fans of piano-based performers like Billy Joel and Bruce Hornsby - two of the many influences Vassar had while growing up - so if you're looking for something different check out Phil's show. He may be labeled a country artist, but that's just a label. After all, labels are just a simple way to categorize people. In a perfect world, radio stations wouldn't worry about labels - they'd just play good music.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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originally published: 02/01/2005

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