What do you do when you've made it to the top of the mountain?
You've written hits for some of Nashville top concert headliners -- including yourself. You've been named country songwriter of the year by ASCAP -- twice -- and welcomed into superstardom with a "Best New Vocalist" award from the Academy of Country Music. You've rocked sold-out crowds all across America. You're on course to keep the good times rolling for years to come.
So ? what do you do?
You take it back to your roots. You buy a few six-packs, call your buds, ask them to bring their guitars, and spend some time making music.
And if you're Phil Vassar, you keep the tape rolling -- then, when everyone has gone home, you share the results with the world.
On Shaken Not Stirred, his third Arista Nashville release, country music's number one pianist/singer delivers his most compelling record to date. Each song tells a story -- about the joys of friendship present ("Good Old Days") and past ("Dancin' With Dreams"), the changing textures of life ("I Miss the Innocence"), and, on the album's first single, the transition from irresponsible youth to adulthood ("In a Real Love"). Each note reflects Phil's growth as a singer, musician, and storyteller.
But equally important, Shaken Not Stirred shows Phil in a new, more personal light.
"We went back to the basics," he says. "I've recorded up until now with great studio musicians, but this one I wanted to cut with my band. I wanted to take that camaraderie we've got from being together on the road and bring it into the studio. I wanted to write with the guys too; I even wrote some of these tracks with our bus driver, who's actually a great songwriter."
There are reasons for this shift in direction, the most important being the birth of Presley, his second daughter. For six months, beginning in November last year, Phil kept off the road and stayed home; the pleasures of family life spilled into the new experience of writing and tracking with his band. "It was the first time off I'd taken in five years," he says. "And it was great, being with the baby and doing this record. I'd never had this much fun working on anything else."
Days fell into a comfortable, though productive, routine: The band would drop by and spend the day writing with Phil and playing through the new tunes, either in the upstairs studio or gathered around the grand piano in the sun room downstairs. From their earliest stages the songs of Shaken Not Stirred came to life with a live energy that's rare in studio projects.
To keep that spirit intact Phil decided to lay down the final tracks at Quad Studios, the same facility where years before, as a new kid in town, he had earned pocket money by singing demos. "I used to think, 'Man, these demos sound pretty good,'" he laughs, "so I knew this album would sound even better. I also liked the fact that Quad is smaller than where we cut the last album, which was a great place but so big that I felt like we were working in a gym. For Shaken Not Stirred I wanted us to be closer to each other, like being onstage. I think that vibe comes across really well."
Another relationship, as important as those that bind Phil and his guys, emerges on Shaken Not Stirred. Throughout these writing and recording dates, he felt his connection to the piano strengthening. Of course its importance to Phil has always been clear, but Shaken Not Stirred draws fully from that union of artist and instrument, precisely because this album is all about what lies in the heart of his music.
"I really wanted to do some piano songs on this record," he explains. "In fact, it was necessary. When I first came to Nashville I didn't think of myself as a great player, but because of certain necessities -- eating, paying the rent, stuff like that -- I was soon playing it on gigs just about every day of the week, sometimes twice a day. I'm at the point now where I feel confident about bringing the piano out a little bit more. In fact, there are several songs on this album that are just a piano, a microphone, and me; all they needed was one take and the vibe was there."
Shaken Not Stirred, then, is a bridge that stretches from the present back to Lynchburg, Virginia, where Phil grew up pretty much like the young man he sings about now on "In a Real Love" ("I was eighteen making minimum wage ? You were cum laude with strawberry lips ? I was your daddy's worst fear"). He was mainly into sports when a track scholarship paid his way into James Madison University, but then hopes of making it in music drew him out west to Nashville.
Phil remembers those early days; they weren't, after all, that long ago. "I still think about that time a lot," he says, "when nobody was calling and I was bartending or looking for any work I could possibly do. It seemed like every friend I had was getting record deals -- everybody but me. It took me ten years to get my first song cut."
That was in 1996, when Engelbert Humperdinck recorded "Once in a While," which Phil had written with a fellow bartender. Other artists quickly lined up to record more of his songs: Collin Raye ("Little Red Rodeo"), Alan Jackson ("Right on the Money"), Tim McGraw ("For a Little While"), Jo Dee Messina ("Bye Bye" and "I'm Alright"), BlackHawk ("Postmarked Birmingham"). Almost overnight Phil's stock as a songwriter skyrocketed in Music City, but his greatest ambition -- to launch his own performing career -- proved more elusive.
"The problem was that I played the piano," he says. "Everyone kept asking me, 'Don't you play guitar? Can you wear a hat?' Then after I started getting hits I began hearing, 'Oh, you're a piano player? Great! Let's try it!'"
When Arista Nashville released his debut, Phil Vassar, in 2000, suddenly country music had no problem accommodating a golden-touch songwriter with a winning vocal style, a crowd-pleasing show, and a grand piano. Four tracks from that album broke into the Top Ten as singles; "Just Another Day in Paradise," peaked at number one while "Carlene" hit #5, "Six-Pack Summer" went to #9 and "That's When I Love You" reached #3. (A few weeks after "Just Another Day in Paradise," Tim McGraw nudged it out of the top spot with his recording of "My Next Thirty Years" -- another Vassar composition.) Two years after that Phil's sophomore release, American Child, climbed to number four on the Billboard country charts and fired two singles -- the title track and "This Is God" -- into the top ten for country releases.
By now the media have acknowledged Vassar as a quadruple-threat, equally strong in writing, playing, singing, and entertaining. Tom Netherland from the Richmond Times-Dispatch hailed: "In terms of talent?you'd be challenged to find a more complete musician today." The local press takes special notice of his commitment to deliver the best possible show for every crowd: Taking stock of his performance at a county fair the night after he had served as a presenter at the Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, a reviewer for CN&R in Chico, California, noted that he "gave the corndog-eating Silver Dollar fair crowd a high-energy performance that got them clapping, dancing, and singing along to a powerful set that commanded our full attention."
Response should be just as strong once Shaken Not Stirred hits the streets. Already Phil is back on tour, working the new songs into his set, playing with the same guys who joined him on the album, and erasing all doubts about whether there's room for a multitalented piano man in country music. "Each time I try something new, I set the bar a little higher," he says. "I try to do better than I did before. I try to write the best songs I possibly can. The live show is such a big part of what I do, and Shaken Not Stirred is all about that. It shows who I am when my band and I are doing what we do best. And it can't get more real than that."