Standing just over 6 feet tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes, it’s no wonder Phil Vassar was his high school’s star quarterback.
In fact, he was a decathlete. A track scholarship paid Mr. Vassar’s way through James Madison University not far from his hometown in Lynchburg, Virginia, and his family thought there was hope for him yet.
That he wouldn’t walk down a professionally precarious path.
They were wrong.
For the young man, music always came first. And his father, Phil Vassar Sr.—a musician in his own right—always saw his son’s inevitable choice to become a professional musician coming. But he never could have predicted his success.
At age 51, Mr. Vassar is known as country music’s go-to singer-songwriter—penning hit records for Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson and Blackhawk, as well as two for himself. Not all so surprisingly, his instrument choice, a rebellion one among his guitar-strumming’ comrades, is the piano.
“It’s not that country, you know?” Mr. Vassar said on Thursday afternoon, wheeling his baggage through Denver International Airport with one hand and holding his cell phone with the other. “You just do what you do. And if you’re different, people look at you like you’re on Pluto.”
Unless the mood strikes him, Mr. Vassar won’t be caught playing a concert in chaps—not on Sunday, October 6, at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, or otherwise. He won’t be wearing a cowboy hat. And he most certainly won’t be singing about beer or his pick-up truck.
“You have to forge your own path,” he said. “Be an individual. Otherwise, you’re just going to be like everybody else.”
From the athletic fields to the stage, Mr. Vassar has always wanted to play against the best. So, in 1990, the college dropout took a leap of faith and moved to Nashville, Tennessee—the land of country music’s greats.
And he did not fit in.
“When I started writing songs, for real, I wrote a lot of really bad songs,” he said. “Everyone hated them. And then, all of a sudden, they all went to number one. It was like everybody went, ‘Wait a second. Hold on a minute. Who is this guy?’ You’ve just gotta do what you do and hope for the best.”
Between touring and traveling all summer, Mr. Vassar hasn’t had a chance to sit down and write, he said, but he can feel the itch—at least his iPad can. He keeps draining its battery with song ideas, he said.
He writes from what he knows, what he feels and what he sees around him. That could be one of his friends who’s a cross-dresser—the inspiration behind “Bobbi With An I,” he said—to Cindy Crawford, who fueled the brain-to-beauty story in “Carlene” after Mr. Vassar learned the model was the valedictorian of her high school class.
“Everybody asks me about my songs, ‘Is that a true story?’ And my answer is, ‘I’m not that good. I didn’t make that up,’” he said. “You know what I mean? In real life, crazy things happen.”
The musician’s latest single, “Love Is Alive”—a song about “being away from home, always on the road and the people you love and miss,” he said—is the first track off his upcoming album slated to drop early next year. First, he needs to narrow down the 30-odd tunes he already has recorded, which is always the hardest part, he said.
For now, the musician is living the tour life—dropping his daughters, 15-year-old Haley and 9-year-old Presley, at school Thursday morning and hopping on a plane just hours later.
“Those girls are growing up fast on me. I’m just trying to hang on,” he said. “They don’t think twice about what I do or anything like that. They come with me on tour sometimes. They grew up in it.”
For his visit to the East End, Mr. Vassar will be flying solo with his band, sans daughters, he said, and they can’t wait to get here.
“Everybody’s excited about that show. Playing up there, it’s a whole different deal,” he said. “It’s, like, the home of Billy Joel, are you kiddin’? It’s funny, we have mutual friends, but I never have met him. I’ve always wanted to. He’s really the reason I do it.”
“That’d be somethin’,” Mr. Vassar said, if the original “Piano Man” came to the PAC performance.
During his gig at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, as he often does elsewhere, instead of playing from a set list he will be listening for cues from the audience. Even so, his shows almost always include his hit singles “Just Another Day in Paradise” and “In A Real Love.”
And just like Mr. Joel did back in the day, Mr. Vassar has been known to dance atop a piano or two.
“Oh yeah, I still do that from time to time,” he laughed. “Try to stay in shape so I can get up there, you know?”
Without fail, his moves make the ladies go wild. In fact, in years past, vendors would sell tee-shirts with “The Future Mrs. Vassar” written on them.
“What else can ya do, I just laugh,” he said. “You go, ‘Good grief.’ Part of it makes me giggle a little bit. It’s not a bad thing, through.”
He chuckled, with a mischievous edge. “Let’s rock this joint,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Country music hit-maker Phil Vassar will give a concert on Sunday, October 6, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $55 to $75. For more information, call 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.