Lots of musicians talk a big game about authenticity.
They have to live it in order to write about it, they say. But how many of them actually practice what they preach?
Phil Vassar, though, clearly walks the walk.
Take his hit “Just Another Day in Paradise” for example — it’s an ode to the perfectly imperfect details of domestic living, from sour milk to broken washing machines. When a fancy dinner date fails the song’s narrator, pizza delivery prevails.
On a recent Thursday morning in his home in Nashville, Tennessee, the country star took questions by telephone as activity swirled around him. His teenage daughter was babysitting a neighborhood girl, and they wanted pizza for breakfast. He took a moment to give them money and get them settled. Occasionally, his daughter would yell a question to him.
But he wasn’t frustrated or impatient. Because this, in real life, was his “Another Day in Paradise.”
His warmth and optimism are at an all-time high in recent years. He says his latest stretch of tour dates — a career-spanning jaunt called “Hitsteria Tour” that he’ll bring to Long’s Park on Sunday — has been his happiest yet.
“I don’t know why I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had, but I am,” Vassar says. “I’m enjoying myself. I think at this point, the pressure’s off.”
Vassar says he’s no longer a slave to record labels, managers and publishers pushing him.
“It’s more like, you know, it’s just about the music and it’s about the fans,” Vassar says. “I think the realization of that has just made it so much more enjoyable.”
And the fans were a vital part of Vassar initially finding success. He developed a strong following playing his original tunes at the Nashville venue he owned, Hard Day’s Nightclub. Vassar didn’t have much luck impressing record label executives, as they found it strange piano was his instrument of choice as a country artist.
“They were like, ‘You have to play guitar and wear a hat. That’s just what we do here,’ ” Vassar says. “I had more bonehead comments like that from big labelheads, big producers or attorneys, managers. So, I heard a lot of that.”
But at Hard Day’s Nightclub, he found fans in famous folk such as Tim McGraw and Jo Dee Messina, and both went on to record Vassar’s songs.
Finally, in 1999, Vassar released his first single, “Carlene.” He’s celebrating the 20th anniversary of that release on the “Hitsteria Tour.”
“In some ways it feels like yesterday, and some days it feels like it’s been 200 years,” Vassar says. “It really is that way. I think time is such an odd thing, you know?”
Some of his songs have captured the growth of his two daughters: Haley, 20, and Presley, 15. “Don’t Miss Your Life” is about the fear of missing out on your child’s big moments. “She’s On Her Way” is a father’s bittersweet realization that his little girl won’t stay so small forever. That one’s such a tearjerker that Vassar rarely performs it live.
“I can’t really hardly sing that,” Vassar says. “I’ve only done them a few times in concert, because it’s that hard. It’s kind of weird when you’ve got this guy playing piano crying. ... I’m so tied emotionally to the song.”
In recent years, his songwriting has slowed. He released a few Christmas songs — one with Kellie Pickler, another with Lonestar — but not much else.
That will change soon.
“Now it’s like, man, I can’t wait to write a song when I get back home this next week,” Vassar says.
While country radio has changed, Vassar doesn’t have plans to get too trendy with his new music.
“I’m not a rapper,” Vassar says. “I don’t know how to rap. A lot of country songs have rap in it now. … It’s not about drum loops and everything else and production. It’s like, I don’t want to write a crappy song with a drum loop. I want to write a great song.”
And at the end of the day, he’s less concerned with how the song charts. Instead, he’ll be looking out into the crowd for the reaction that matters most.
“It’s been a few years since I had my last No. 1 song, so you just wonder,” Vassar says. “But I just always am grateful to the fans that keep coming to see us year after year. We’re lucky we just still get to do it. I really do feel blessed.”