Phil Vassar Brings ‘Circus’ to Town
Phil Vassar has never fit into the cookie cutter mold that is country music, and that's just the way he likes it. The genre's only "piano man" has been a unique force in the business for a decade now ... albeit a business with which he has a bit of a beef.
The Boot sat down with Phil on a rainy Nashville afternoon to talk about both his struggles and successes with the industry and about his latest mold-breaking project, 'Traveling Circus' -- the illustrious singer/songwriter's sixth studio album. In addition to getting stories behind some of our favorite new songs, we also talked to the divorced dad about his new dating life and new venture to the Great White Way.
How did the idea for the album title come about?
I kept agonizing about a name for this record. And one of my friends said, 'I can see you as a circus performer!' And that's when it hit me. I've always called our band a "traveling circus," so it just fit. There are a lot of similarities between a circus and life. You get the Volkswagen with all the clowns popping out of it -- well, we have a bus with all of us popping out of it.
The CD cover art includes a drawing of you as a circus ringmaster -- not your typical country album cover, which is usually just an airbrushed photo of the artist.
Aren't you so sick of those Glamour Shots covers?! Everything is so stale -- the hand under the chin, the gussied, made-up singer. It's so lame! It's like our labels here [in Nashville] ... everybody wants to do the same thing. Everybody wants to sign the same artist -- the guy in the hat, jeans and starched shirt who looks like George Strait. No other genre does that -- they have diversity.
About ten years ago, one of my buddies has a son who was three years old at the time, and we were listening to the radio and he was in the car. And he goes, "Dad, why does the same guy sing every song?" Whoa! That struck me right between the eyes ... It was the smartest thing I'd ever heard! For a while, everybody was doing the same thing. But now it's starting to change a little bit, and that's really cool.
And back when you were first getting started, music executives tried to get you to put on a cowboy hat and trade your piano for a guitar. How'd you resist that pressure?
I like to wear a cowboy hat when I'm just wearing chaps and feeling kinda frisky. [laughs] No, I'm kidding ... But it's like a uniform. The label would say, "You're a piano player. Nobody cares." And maybe they don't, but when I was a kid, it was Elton John, Billy Joel, Ray Charles, Barry Manilow and Lionel Richie -- there were a million of them. Now, there's one. And that conversation resulted in a song that James Slater and I wrote, 'Where Have All the Pianos Gone.'
The new single, 'Everywhere I Go,' is about remembering a lost loved one, whether you lost them to death or a break-up. You wrote that with Jeffrey Steele, whose son died in an accident a few years ago. Was that a tearful writing session?
It really wasn't, but it was certainly in our minds. His was a loss that no one wants to experience. It's a powerful song, one of my favorites on the album.
Is it safe to assume you had your two daughters in mind when writing 'She's on Her Way'?
When Haley was born, I was in the hospital waiting room talking to this guy who was there to see one of his grandkids who was just born. I told him I'd just had a little girl, and he said, "That's the one woman you're going to love every day of your life." I thought that was pretty poignant.
The album's first single, 'Bobbi With an I,' is about a guy who dresses like a woman to get free drinks at a bar. Even though it's undeniably funny, it was met with mixed reaction. Were you expecting it to be controversial?
We do that song live, and everybody goes crazy. Everybody needs a cross-dressing song, right? [laughs] It may freak people out a little bit though ... Craig [Wiseman] and I cried laughing when we were writing that. It's a true story. And no one would let me cut it, but we somehow got it past them. In this age, everybody is so politically correct ... it's awful! Creatively, it's stifling. 'Bobbi With an I' is fun, and if you don't like it, you've got a problem! Roll a doobie, sit back and relax. [laughs] Life's too short. Every song can't save the whales, ya know? Some songs are just to have a good time.
On that note, this album's entire theme is a bit lighter than your last, 'Prayer of a Common Man.' Is that a reflection of where you are in your life right now?
I was going through a divorce right in the middle of that [last album]. Now I'm in a completely different place. I just "get it" now ... It's not life or death -- if something doesn't work, it's OK. I've got great kids and a great life.
That makes me think of the new song, 'Lemonade': "Life's about changes / Lemons into lemonade."
[laughs] My label hated that song! "Lemons into lemonade?" [rolls eyes] But I've never heard a song about that. And I wrote that when Haley was going through a time when she was sad, when I was going through a divorce, and it was written from that standpoint. You're going to go through a lot of lemons in life, but you have to make the best of it.
Tell us about the writing session with Kenny Chesney on 'I Will Remember You.'
One of us was going through a break-up. I can't remember who -- because we both go through them a lot! [laughs] Kenny and I have written a lot of songs, and this one was written several years back but I've always wanted to record it.
You're writing all of the music for the upcoming Broadway adaptation of the 2007 movie, 'Waitress.' That's got to be a lot different than writing for country radio.
Yes, it's the first time I've ever done anything like this. The cool thing is that the subject matter is right in front of you, and that's usually the hardest part about writing songs ... It's such a cool movie with so many great characters. I've had a really great time putting this together.
Your labelmate Joe Nichols has come out in the press criticizing artists who don't take time out to perform for the troops. You are one of the artists who does dedicate time, year after year, to spend time with U.S. servicemen and women. Do you feel like that should be part of your job description as a country artist?
It's not a noble thing to me, I just love doing it. On a selfish note, I think they're the greatest fans. I've gotten letters and e-mails from them. One said something like, "I was in a fox hole. All the lights were out -- pitch black dark, and 'American Child' came on ... in the middle of the desert!" How cool is that? That gave me chills. I've really wanted to do a lot more. I'm headed overseas in January, so I'll do a show in Germany.
And you're doing an entire tour of Europe -- your first over there.
I've wanted to do this for years, but my agent wouldn't send me over. So that's why he's not my agent anymore! Seriously, that's the only reason because he's still my friend and I love him. But this is what I want. I know we're all making money here, but I want to take this to the world.
Your live shows are absolutely electric. Where do you get your energy?
You sit on a bus for 22 hours, but for two hours you're let out of this "cage." That's how I've always felt about it, and I love it! I can go to a show feeling like total crap, but when the lights come up, I don't have a care in the world. That may also be because I'm drinking. [laughs]
The merch tables at your shows have tank tops that say "Future Mrs. Vassar" on them. Do you think there will be a future Mrs. Vassar? Do you think the third time will be a charm?
That shirt was not my idea! [laughs] I'm actually getting married next week ... to Bobbi. [laughs] No, I have no plans for that. I have started to date again. But bringing somebody around my kids again ... that terrifies me. What if they're nuts? And they usually turn out to be, in my experience! [laughs] But seriously, I've got to do the right thing when it comes to that.
I heard someone say the other day, "Phil Vassar is the most underrated artist in country music." Do you agree?
Probably! I don't know what it is that makes one artist bigger than another. But I've gotten lucky. I have great fans and have done better every year since I started. There's something to be said for that -- to be here six albums in, ten years later. I'll look at acts all the time and just go, "Are you kidding? Why isn't that song the biggest song ever?" Maybe it's just luck. Mediocrity is so celebrated in our culture. So maybe the key is just keeping your mouth shut, do your thing and have fun. I'm just lucky to still do what I do and have audiences who come see my shows. I feel sorry for acts who can't perform. You have to be an entertainer.