Songwriter Interviews

Phil Vassar

by Amanda Flinner

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Oo-la-la-la-la-la lookin' good... Janice? Country's piano man tells the story behind his seminal hit "Carlene" and talks hitting the holiday road with Lonestar.

When Phil Vassar first came to Nashville in the late '80s, he didn't look like a typical country singer - and he didn't sound like one either. The Virginia native steered clear of cowboy hats and boots and preferred a rollicking piano to a twangy guitar. It took years of writing hits for other artists before the conventional industry was willing to take a gamble on the piano man.

"I'm lucky I made it at all in Nashville," Vassar admits, "because they don't like piano players so much."

By the time Vassar released his self-titled debut in 2000, he already penned chartbusters for Tim McGraw ("My Next Thirty Years"), Collin Raye ("Little Red Rodeo"), Jo Dee Messina ("Bye, Bye"), and Alan Jackson ("Right On The Money") and was named the 1999 Country Songwriter of the Year by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Finally giving voice to his own lyrics, the singer hit the charts with "Carlene," "Just Another Day In Paradise," and "That's When I Love You."

Nearly two decades and several hits later, Vassar is still releasing new music - his album Look Back Forward launched in March 2018 - but he spends most of his time touring.

When Songfacts caught up with the singer, he was hanging out at his home studio in Nashville with his buddies from Lonestar. The country stars were gearing up to spread holiday cheer on their joint Not So Silent Night Christmas tour.

In this interview, Vassar teases the Christmas single "Not So Silent Night" and gives us a glimpse behind some of his classic tunes, including the one that still scores him free pizza.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): When you're on the road, do you keep up with a songwriting schedule?

Phil Vassar: Well, I don't write as much as I used to. I'm one of those guys that kinda writes sporadically. I go through phases, you know. I just wrote a Christmas song with the Lonestar guys. As a matter of fact, they're here with me right now because we're going over our Christmas tour. We just cut a new song, "Not So Silent Night," and we're getting ready to do a video. It's just craziness, so we're gonna have fun.

Songfacts: You've known the guys from Lonestar for a long time but you've never collaborated before, right?

Vassar: We've never really done a song together or anything. We've done shows together over the years and we were labelmates, so I've known them for a long time and we've been friends since way before any of us got record deals or had any kind of success. I really like them a lot, we're all good buds. So, I'm really excited about this tour. Christmas is gonna be really fun.

Songfacts: You and Lonestar have done a couple Christmas albums individually in the past. I'm pretty sure that they have some original Christmas songs. You do "Santa's Gone Hollywood."

Vassar: Oh yeah, I'm sure they do. When I do Christmas records, I try to do half and half: half something I wrote and then half the songs people know, or that are well known. Public domain songs that everybody sings at Christmas.

Songfacts: Is it harder to write a Christmas song than it is to write a regular song?

Vassar: I always thought it was because Christmas songs have been done for years and years and years. It's hard to write something different. Like this new song we just recorded, it's called "Not So Silent Night," and it's the name of the tour actually. It's just crazy weird and different, and it's really fun.

I like to write funny songs, and this song is funny and it's a good time. It's kind of a fun, Christmas party song. Of course, the hymns and the "Silent Nights" of the world, I don't know if I could ever write a song any better than that. There's no way I can top the Christmas songs. You know, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" will be sung until the end of time, so you just have to find your own little niche.

Songfacts: Were you and Lonestar thinking of releasing a Christmas album together?

Vassar: Well, actually this will lead to the Christmas single that's coming out in November. We're about to shoot this video that's coming out, but as far as a Christmas album, I don't think so. But maybe for next year... you never know how everything's going to work out. I know I'm putting a Christmas album out next year, a newer one. I cut a song with Kellie Pickler ["The Naughty List"] last year for Christmas when we did our tour, this year it's Lonestar. You never know what it holds for next year. I do like Christmas, and recording Christmas songs with my friends is always fun.

Songfacts: You also had a single out from your latest album, Look Back Forward, called "Fall Crazy." What's the story behind that one?

Vassar: Well, it's just a love song, and I don't write a lot of love songs. "Fall Crazy," I love what it says and cutting it was awesome. I cut all my records at my house now, so it's extra special because I got to do it at the house.

Songfacts: Did you write that one solo?

Vassar: I didn't. I wrote it with Julie Wood - my ex-wife Julie - and Kellys Collins. We've been writing together for almost forever. So, I really love the song and they're two great songwriters. I think the tune came out good.

Linda Hargrove was a Nashville singer-songwriter who penned hits for several artists in the '70s and '80s, including Olivia Newton-John ("Let It Shine"), Tanya Tucker ("New York City Song"), Lynn Anderson ("I've Never Loved Anyone More"), and Ernest Tubb ("Half My Heart's In Texas"). One of her most enduring tunes is "Tennessee Whiskey," co-written by George Strait's longtime songwriter Dean Dillon. It was first recorded by David Allan Coe in 1981 and popularized by George Jones, who brought it to #2 on the country chart two years later.

Hargrove died in 2010 at age 61 after a long battle with leukemia.
Songfacts: I was reading that when you first came to Nashville you connected with Linda Hargrove. What did you learn about songwriting from her?

Vassar: Well, a lot. She was a huge, huge influence on my life. I really hated to lose her at such a young age. She died several years back and I still think about her all the time. She was young, and she was a great songwriter, but the thing I loved about Linda was that she was really from the soul, from the heart, and that was how she wrote songs. When I was developing my skills as a songwriter, that's where I went.

It's hard for me to be one of those guys - there's a lot of songwriters in Nashville that can just churn it out. I am a professional songwriter, and I've had a lot of hits and all that, but I'm also an artist that tours and I do all that stuff. It's hard for me to sit there and write the same song about a truck every day. I can't do it. That's just not my thing. There are guys that can do it - they talk about the back roads and the backwoods and the beer and the girl. It's kind of an assembly-line style of writing, and I don't do it and I don't wanna do it.

Linda wrote songs like "Tennessee Whiskey." Think about that song. That song still has a life all these years after George cut it. Everybody's cut that song, and that's what you call a copyright. That's what I aspire to do: write great songs. I think they'll play some of these songs forever, hopefully they will. Some of the songs you hear now, I don't think they'll ever play them again after they're done. I hope they don't. [laughs]

Songfacts: You have a lot more control now over your music compared to when you released your debut album, but back then did you have a say in what tracks made the album and which ones would be singles?

Vassar: You know what, I did. I always did. I was very, very lucky in that respect because I had all these hits as a songwriter before I had my deal, and when I got my record deal my label said, "You know what, Phil, just go cut a record, and bring it back." That is unheard of in Nashville. Everybody tries to micromanage everything and tell you what to cut, and half of these people don't know anything about songs or songwriting or anything else. I'm like, "Look, I know how to write songs. Just let me do my deal and you guys figure out what to do with it after that." So I was very blessed.

Songfacts: "Carlene" was inspired by Cindy Crawford, but wasn't it also about somebody you knew in high school?

Vassar: It was. The valedictorian of my class was Janice Roque, and I kept thinking about Janice. I'd seen her not long after I got a record deal, and I wrote the song after I was thinking, man, she looked so good. She was this little geeky girl, but she was such a pretty girl, so she's a pretty lady.

Then I was watching this thing about Cindy Crawford on TV and, of course, it happened that she was valedictorian of her class and she had these little glasses on and I was like, can you imagine she becomes Cindy Crawford, supermodel? So, I thought that was a funny story. Of course, I was a football player and a C student poster child, so it was definitely a stretch that I put us together in the song.

It was really, really fun. I actually got to meet Cindy because of that song. She knew it was about her, and her husband Randy had heard about it and we got to meet. It was really great.

Songfacts: Did you guys toy around with different names before you settled on "Carlene"?

Vassar: Yes, we did. With my co-writer Charlie Black. But I kept coming up with these names and we were talking about how we've got to find the right name: Oo-la-la-la-la-la lookin' good Janice or Francine. And he went, "Well, I dated this girl Carlene in high school," and I went, "Carlene! That's perfect!" And it sings perfectly.

It's funny because I meet a lot of people now that say, "Here's my daughter, Carlene" - they named her after the song. Isn't that neat?

Songfacts: I was thinking of maybe Carlene Carter. That's the only Carlene I could think of.

Vassar: Yeah, I love Carlene Carter, too. She's a great lady.

Songfacts: Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?

Vassar: Oh my God, yeah. About wrecked my car. I was in the car in Nashville and heard my song "Postmarked Birmingham" by BlackHawk on the radio, and I just pulled over and went, man, this is really cool.

And then, the first time I ever heard me singing, I was doing a hometown visit to Lynchburg, Virginia, where I grew up, and I was going on a radio show that morning. My alarm went off and woke me up and "Carlene" was playing. It was like 5 o'clock in the morning. It was still dark, and I thought I was dreaming but I wasn't.

Vassar's first #1 Country hit as an artist, "Just Another Day In Paradise," is a slice of life about a young married couple that tries to keep the spark alive despite the everyday struggles of domesticity. Sometimes that means being creative on date night. He sings:

Friday, you're late
Guess we'll never make our dinner date
At the restaurant you start to cry
Baby, we'll just improvise
Well, plan B looks like
Domino's pizza in the candlelight
Then we'll tippy toe to our room
Make a little love that's overdue
Songfacts: One of your frequent co-writers was also Craig Wiseman. Was "Just Another Day in Paradise" your first collaboration?

Vassar: It was. The first time we ever wrote together. Of course, we've written so many songs together since. But Craig and I have been friends for years and years and years. We both came to Nashville at about the same time, 30 years ago. We just both suffered through a lot of craziness, and Craig has had so many hits. What a great guy and a great songwriter.

Songfacts: Is that song more based on your experience of being married and having a young daughter at the time?

Vassar: Yeah, it was definitely a snapshot into my life at that moment. It's funny, the cool thing about it is that people are always like, "You know what, man, you took a picture of my life." And I think whenever you write a song like that, that sort of relates to yourself and everybody else, you've really got a magical song. And I think that's what happened - that moment in time was captured.

Songfacts: That lyric where you mention Domino's pizza specifically - and in some other songs like "I Wish You Were Beer," you mention some beer brands - do you ever run into any legal issues with that kind of stuff?

Vassar: No, I don't think there would be any problem. As a song, it's free advertisement, right? So I think they're like, "Dude, this song is about Domino's and it's a huge #1 song." It's pretty cool, I've actually had a lot of Domino's franchises just send me pizza, which I love. I'm like, "Thanks for the pizza," and they're like, "Thanks for the song."

Songfacts: Songs like "Just Another Day In Paradise" and "American Child" and "My Next Thirty Years" mark such specific points in your life, and you're still performing them now, years later. How have those types of songs changed for you over time?

Vassar: As an artist and a songwriter, I think you evolve. Everybody's like, "You need to write another 'Just Another Day in Paradise,'" or, "You need to write another 'Bye Bye.'" But there are no other songs like that. It is a snapshot of your life at a point in time, or you're going through something and you write about it. It might happen again at some point, but you write about what you're going through in your life.

Songfacts: Is it bittersweet for you to sing some of those early ones?

Vassar: It's always pretty awesome. There are definitely certain songs... I went through a little thing yesterday with the song "She's On Her Way" which is about my daughters. I really choked up singing it because I was thinking about my kids growing up and doing Homecoming or moving away, and you're just like, holy crap. It's real stuff for me. That's real.

Songfacts: What do you remember about writing "This Is God"?

Vassar: Man, that's one of those songs that was really really special for me. I was on an airplane when I wrote that song [in 2002], and I was reading all this news. I was like, What in the world is going on?

Even today, it's very poignant because everything going on in the world today, you just shake your head and go, What in the hell is wrong with us? It's like it just keeps getting worse. People hate each other more and society has just turned into a joke, and it's unfolding before our eyes. I think out of desperation or out of exasperation I wrote it.

Songfacts: The music video is an emotional one, with you walking past all types of people who are struggling with different kinds of pain. Do you remember the experience of making the video?

Vassar: Of course I do. It was like 20 degrees in Nashville that day. A few people actually got frostbite. It was freezing cold, and I tell you what, to me it's the best video I've ever done. It's powerful in the way they did that. George Flanigen (of Deaton Flanigen) was the one who shot that video, but it was just like, man.

Don't get me wrong, there are others like "American Child," that is one of my favorites, too. I've been really lucky with my videos, I really like them. There is one that I don't really care for, but I think I shot that in LA or something and I wasn't really happy with it. You can never tell what's going to happen, but those guys who did "This Is God" are very artistic.

Songfacts: "This Is God" wasn't included on the original run of the American Child album. Why was that?

Vassar: Yeah, they actually re-released it! They re-released the album with that on it and a song that I cut with Huey Lewis, who is one of my dear friends, I love him. We cut "Workin' For A Livin'" together and they were like, "We want to re-release it with those two songs." That's how much [label executive] Joe Galante loved "This Is God." He said, "Phil, this song moves me in a way that I can't even explain."

The label took the expense to do that and that says a lot about him, how passionate he was about his artists and about his music, and about our music. You don't see that much anymore. It's all about money. Everybody cares about what sells, they don't care about what's good. It's more about what's gonna move the needle back. They just want to make money and I get it - I understand capitalism and all of that, I went to college and studied business, but I don't know where that's gonna leave us. At some point it's going to be a whole lot of really bad music. But who knows, I'm not an expert - I just write songs and get to sing 'em. That's all I can do.

Songfacts: I always assumed that you wrote "I'll Take That As A Yes," but I was wrong.

Vassar: You were. My friend Jon McElroy wrote that. Everybody would always pitch me things and I'd say, "Hey, I'm a writer. I don't really need songs." And everybody was telling me, "This sounds like a Phil Vassar song," and I said, "Look, I write Phil Vassar songs, I don't need you to send me songs that sound like me." If I want to record something, I want it to be a little bit different. But one of my buddies Jon - he's a complete whack and I love him dearly - sent me this whacked-out demo of this song, "I'll Take That As A Yes," and I went ballistic. I said, "Dude, please, please let me cut this for you."

Jon just lost his wife about a month ago, and it makes me so sad. They were together such a long time. But he's just a great, great writer and a great guy. Just one heck of a songwriter - I really have a lot of respect for him. I'm really blessed he let me have that song. We play that song every night and people love it.

Songfacts: Is there a song from your catalog, whether it's one you wrote for someone else or recorded yourself, that you love but didn't get the attention it deserved?

Vassar: I've always loved "Postmarked Birmingham." BlackHawk did that song the other night. It wasn't as big a hit as I thought it could be but I'll tell you one thing - they killed it. They did a great job on it.

Songfacts: I asked Aaron Tippin a while back if he was first starting out in Nashville as a younger artist today, would he make it? And he said, not a chance. If Phil Vassar just arrived in Nashville the way it is today, do you think he would make it?

Vassar: You know what, I don't know. I think it's a whole lot harder. It's a lot different, and you don't have the freedom to do the things you used to do. And people own you. I can't say that I would or wouldn't. I am different - I'm a piano player, so I'm lucky I made it at all in Nashville because they don't like piano players so much. So, I've been really, really lucky. That's a hard question. But, let's just go with "I don't know."

October 15, 2018
Get tour dates and more info at philvassar.com
Further reading:
Our 2013 interview with Richie McDonald of Lonestar
Our 2008 interview with Jo Dee Messina

Here's one with Dean Dillon
And with Aaron Tippin

Photos: Derrek Kupish (1,3), Mark Maryanovich (2)

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