Phil Vassar Gets ‘Stripped Down’ on New Album and Tour

“We have a tendency to overproduce things in Nashville because we can and I think it’s gotten so out of control,” he says.

Phil Vassar Gets ‘Stripped Down’ on New Album and Tour
Phil Vassar; Photo credit: Robby Klein

Sometimes less is truly more. A great song doesn’t need layers of production to really shine, and Phil Vassar’s stellar new album, Stripped Down, perfectly illustrates that philosophy.

Both in the recording studio and on his latest tour, Vassar has opted to take a more organic approach, and he’s enjoying the journey. “I’m on a stripped down tour. It’s just me and the piano,” Vassar tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I’m doing 24 cities right now in six weeks. I’m playing small theaters and people really like these kind of shows.  It’s about the songs and having conversations. I don’t have a set list. I just go out there and play songs. It’s really fun.”

Vassar took that same stripped down approach in recording the new album.  “We have a tendency to overproduce things in Nashville because we can and I think it’s gotten so out of control,” he says. “I wanted to do something like Garth did in Las Vegas. It was just about him and the guitar. I wanted to break it down and do that.”

Phil Vassar; Cover art courtesy of Adkins Publicity
Phil Vassar; Cover art courtesy of Adkins Publicity

Vassar says the seeds for this album and tour were actually planted at a 1992 Elton John benefit at the Grand Ole Opry House for his bass player Dee Murray, who had been battling cancer. “When I saw Elton John play piano by himself at this fundraiser for Dee Murray, that show was life changing for me honestly because there he was up there by himself on that piano,” Vassar says. “He didn’t need a band. He needed just an instrument and himself. It inspired me.”

That passionate spirit infuses the songs on Stripped Down, an album that focuses squarely on Vassar’s considerable gifts as a vocalist, piano player and of course, songwriter. The Virginia native began his career penning hits for Collin Raye (“Little Red Rodeo”), Alan Jackson (“Right on the Money”), Tim McGraw (“My Next Thirty Years,” “For a Little While”), Jo Dee Messina (“Bye Bye,” “Alright”) and Blackhawk (“Postmarked Birmingham”) and then signed a recording deal with Arista Records. As an artist, he’s scored 10 No. 1 singles and 26 Top 40 hits, among them “Carlene,” “Six-Pack Summer,” “When I Love You” and “Just Another Day in Paradise.”

On Stripped Down, Vassar delivers his own take on “Postmarked Birmingham,” a song he wrote with Don Sampson that Blackhawk took to the top 40 back in 1997.  “I love what they did to it. It’s beautiful,” he says of the lush Blackhawk rendition. “But just because you can spend $25,000 on a track doesn’t mean you have to. A real song can stand on it’s own.”

Vassar co-produced the album with his friend/band leader Jeff Smith, and co-wrote the songs on the new project with some of his favorite collaborators, including Charlie Black, John Rich and his daughter Haley, who co-wrote and sings on “This Is Where The End Starts.” “I love writing with that kid. It’s so much fun. She’s got so much talent and she’s just got a really cool spirit about her,” the proud father gushes. “I started this little music thing and had this idea. She just sat down with me and we wrote it quickly. It was really, really cool. When it was done, she said, ‘I love the way you cut the song.’ I got the approval of my kid, so that’s a good thing.”

Vassar co-wrote “Polaroid” with Big & Rich’s John Rich. It’s a tender ballad about responsibilities testing the romance in a marriage, but the couple remembers when were “crazy young in love” every time they look at an old Polaroid picture. “I love writing with John,” he says.  “He’s such a talented guy and he’s one of those guys I feel very comfortable writing with. I really like that song.  We were talking about a picture of him and his wife, and ended up writing that song.”

One of Vassar’s favorites is an infectious tune he wrote decades ago and finally recorded. “‘Perfect World’ was a song I wrote literally, I think, 30 years ago,” he says of the song about the craziness in the world and love’s ability to overcome it. “I’ve never cut it.  We’ve messed around with it in the studio before, but it never made a record, not that I know of anyway, unless someone put it out that I don’t know of. It’s one of those songs I’ve always loved and lyrically it’s really, really spot on for today and what’s going on in the world. We could have written it this week.”

In addition to the new album, which released Jan. 17, and his current tour, Vassar is excited that his “Songs from the Cellar” series will begin airing on the new Circle Network. Filmed in his wine cellar, Vassar has had a variety of interesting guests, including Mike Tyson, Tommy Shaw, Carrot Top, Jeffrey Steele, Steve Cropper, Charles Esten and Cam. “I just confirmed Sammy Hagar, Dennis Quaid, Kellie Pickler and Tanya Tucker. It’s going to be so much fun,” he says of upcoming shows. “And I’m so excited about being on the Circle Network. It’s very cool to be part of it.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of “Just Another Day in Paradise” hitting the top of the charts and becoming Vassar’s first No. 1 as an artist. He’s appreciative of his successful past, but not content to rest on his laurels. “It’s not just about ‘Paradise’ or ‘Carlene’ or my first record, it’s about doing different things, reinventing yourself and doing something you love.  I get to do a show from my house in my wine cellar about songwriting. I might have the best job in the whole world!  It’s very, very cool. I’m blessed is all I can say.  Every day I just go, ‘Thank you God!’”