Get a seat for Vassar’s ‘Traveling Circus’ show

Tuesday, December 29, 2009 at 12:45am

Don’t shoot him (with praise)… he’s only the piano player.

Phil Vassar has enjoyed enormous success as a country songwriter, having written not only number one hits as a solo act, but successful songs for such artists as Tim McGraw, Colin Raye, Alan Jackson and Jo Dee Messina.

Yet Vassar, who along with Ronnie Milsap, Mike Reid and Ray Stevens has been among the rare pianists to succeed in a guitar-dominated genre, says he never planned to be a songwriter.

In fact, he still views himself mainly as a keyboard player.

But Vassar, whose second Universal South CD Traveling Circus was just released earlier this month, has either singly or co-written all 11 songs on the disc. He adds that he's developed a simple philosophy toward composition that governs his work.

"Since I never intended to be a songwriter, I don't really get all wrapped up in method," Vassar says. "For me, it's all about the things that mean the most to me — family, values, life experiences. I've always enjoyed singing and performing, but for me the lyrics have to mean something."

Vassar was accomplished enough during his early years in Nashville to earn a couple of deals strictly as a songwriter. At one time he co-owned and operated Nathan’s, a Nashville restaurant that doubled as a popular site for songwriters, thanks to an ‘open mike’ night.

It was also the place where he debuted material and polished his live act. However, he continued to have tunes picked up by others, becoming so prolific that by 1999 he was selected ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year.

That led to a label deal as a performer in 2000 (with Arista Nashville) and Vassar enjoyed a string of big singles and albums for that label. But in 2006 he decided it was time for a change and he moved to the independent Universal South label.

"Sometimes change can be a good thing," says Vassar about his move. "Complacency is the devil when you're a creative person. It wasn't that I was necessarily all that unhappy, but it just seemed the right time to try something new."

Traveling Circus spotlights both Vassar's strong, confident vocals and the signature piano embellishments in the arrangements, short but memorable solos and effective accompaniment that punctuates such songs as "Tequila Town," "Life," "Where Have All The Pianos Gone" and "John Wayne."

However while he's definitely an outstanding technician, Vassar downplays his instrumental prowess, especially when he thinks about classical and jazz stylists he admires.

"I'm nowhere as disciplined as those guys," Vassar says. "I'm more of a percussive, busy type of player. I'm sort of the guy who does those bits in the background and people hear them and think they know who's playing but aren't quite sure.

“It's funny because when I first came to Nashville everywhere I went they kept telling me you need to learn the guitar and put on a hat,” he remembers. “After all these years, it seems like there still aren't a lot of guys like me in country who play the piano and sing as front men. You're seeing more of them in rock and pop like Ben Folds, who I really admire and of course the piano guys like Billy Joel and Elton John. But I hope eventually we get more in country music."

Most of the songs on Traveling Circus were composed for the disc, and some of Vassar's collaborators include Jeffrey Steele ("Everywhere I Go"), Craig Wiseman ("Bobbi with an I," "A Year From Now") and Kelly Lovelace ("Tequila Town"). But one of them, a touching tribute work co-written with Kenny Chesney ("I Will Remember You"), has been part of the Vassar catalog for many years.

"I usually try to get at least one or two older songs on a album, and that's one that Kenny and I had written a long tine ago, but for whatever reason it never got onto any previous release," Vassar said. "I think it's a very special one in terms of both the message and the music, one that both of us were very proud of at the time, and I'm glad we finally got on an album."

The first part of 2010 promises to be a busy one for Vassar. He'll be appearing in Las Vegas on New Year's Day, then will head to the Midwest for a three-night series of shows. After that he'll be shifting things overseas for a series of European engagements. He's got shows scheduled in London, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, plus other dates in Mexico and Australia, too.

"I'll be doing a lot of flying next year," Vassar laughs.

Vassar cites writing for Broadway, television and film as something he'd eventually like to do, but admits that right now he's concentrating on his upcoming shows and promoting his new release.

"I like to keep things interesting, and I think that my plate's pretty full for 2010."