Stepping outside the country box

Radio execs frozen by PC, stingy country fans all in a day’s work for Phil Vassar

Alan Sculley | Boulder Weekly



Phil Vassar found out that country music is still a play-it-safe genre when the song “Bobbi With An I” was floated to radio as a first single off of his current CD, The Traveling Circus.


The tune tells the tale of a guy who is a small town everyday Joe during the work week but shows up one evening at a nightclub dressed as a woman. While clearly meant to be an over-the-top, funny song, country radio was skittish about sharing in the joke.

“Everybody is so busy trying to keep their jobs, they’re not doing their jobs,” Vassar says in a recent phone interview. “Everybody’s politically correct, and everybody’s so afraid to even talk or make a move.”

Vassar was disappointed because he knows “Bobbi With An I” has been a hit with his live audiences.

“We still do the song every night in the show and it (the crowd reaction) is off the hook,” he says.

The failure of “Bobbi With An I” as a single is hardly the first time Vassar has gone outside the usual country music box.

In fact, the native of Lynchburg, Va. began running into obstacles almost from the day he arrived in Nashville in the mid-1980s.

A main problem was he played piano, not guitar. “I fought it forever,” Vassar says. “[Label people literally said] ‘Man, you need to put on starched jeans, a shirt and a hat and play guitar like everybody else does.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to do that because that is what everybody else does. Let them do it. I just want to be different.’ And of course, Nashville hates anything different. They’re scared of it.”

But after writing a number of hits for other artists, including “For A Little While” and “My Next Thirty Years” for Tim McGraw, Arista Nashville in 2000 took a chance on Vassar — piano and all — and the long quest for a record deal was over.

The label’s faith in Vassar was quickly rewarded when his 2000 self-titled debut CD sold more than a million copies and spawned four hit singles, including the chart-topper “Just Another Day In Paradise.”

Vassar hasn’t had that kind of success since. His next four albums had some singles (including another pair of chart-toppers), but they weren’t major hit CDs. He split with Arista and signed to Universal South prior to making his 2008 CD, Prayer of a Common Man.

But rather than try even harder to fit in with the prevailing winds of country music, Vassar has decided to follow his own artistic instincts and let his individuality shine more brightly than ever.

“I got to a point where I said, you know, I’m just going to do what I do. I’m just going to have some fun,” he says.

That outlook is apparent with The Traveling Circus. Vassar decided to produce the CD himself — a rarity in a country music. He also had his touring band record the songs on The Traveling Circus instead of the usual approach of using studio musicians.

“I think the studio musicians are great, but they’re always playing on your record at 10, Faith Hill’s at 2, Tim McGraw’s at 6, and the next day they’re doing whoever, whoever, whoever,” Vassar says. “So you get the same producers, the same musicians. It all just sounds alike to me anymore. I just — I’m sick of it. I wanted to do something a little bit different and do it my own way and sink or swim, whatever.”

As for the music itself, Vassar is making some of the most personal music in Nashville. He wants to use songwriting as a way to explore and share his emotions, thoughts and opinions.

The personal dimension of The Traveling Circus is especially apparent on the ballads “Everywhere I Go” (also a single) and “A Year From Now.” Both songs relate to the upheaval that came with Vassar’s 2007 divorce and the process of regaining his emotional footing over the past couple of years.

“This album has been very cathartic,” says Vassar, who is now a single father of two daughters, Haley, 12, and Presley, 7. “I think folks that have heard these things go man, dude, you meant that. Yeah, I meant it. I lived it, and I came out on the other side. And I’m ready to go to ‘Tequila Town.’” “Tequila Town,” along with “Bobbi With An I” and “Save Tonight For Me” are among several cheerful upbeat songs on The Traveling Circus that give the CD a lighter dimension to go with the heavier material.

On tour, Vassar is taking the traveling circus theme a step further, bringing out his biggest concert production yet.

“I’ve got zebra leopard pianos. The guitar amps, bass amps and all that stuff are in cages,” Vassar says. “Coldplay did ‘Speed Of Sound,’ this big video, and they built this big light wall. … I got some of that wall through those guys. So it’s really going to be exciting.”