By Jennifer Powell (Courtesy photo)
Born in Lynchburg, Va., singer Phil Vassar got his start performing in clubs around James Madison University, paying his dues as a live performer while earning an undergraduate degree in business.
Upon graduation and following a move to Nashville, Tenn., Vassar first broke through on his songwriting chops, penning chart-topping hits for some of country music’s biggest stars before becoming an award-winning and acclaimed singer-songwriter with eight albums, 10 No. 1 hits, 15 Top 10s and 26 Top 40 hits to his credit.
Currently at work on his ninth studio album, Vassar is the host of the online series “Songs from the Cellar,” an actor, and spokesman for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital among other charities. The veteran entertainer recently took time out to talk about integrating social media into his live shows and how he plans to bring his piano-pounding high energy performance to one of his favorite venues, the Birchmere.
Alexandria Times: Each of your songs seem highly autobiographical — like a page out of Phil Vassar. Which might you consider your most autobiographical song to date?
They all are. It’s a feeling that I am writing and singing about in each and that I still feel when I play my songs. I do like feeling something when I hear a song. It can be happy. It can be fun. I don’t think we need to save the whales every time we write a song.
Is this your first time to Alexandria?
I’m from Virginia you know. I’ve been to the Birchmere a million times and I love that place. I love it! It’s just like one of the best places to play. … It is a listening room.
People are there to hear your songs and hear you. There are very few venues like that in the country, I tell you what. It is one of my favorites. I love the folks there. We’ve been playing there a long time and I love coming back. It’s very cool.
Athleticism informs your lyrics and you as a performer. Do you train hard for your tours?
A couple of my buddies are NFL guys and we worked out together yesterday. I’m so sore I can barely walk around my house. Working out with pros. I love exercise, getting outside and working out. It just keeps your mind right.
I’m curious about the music business in Nashville. How has the music business changed since the ‘90s?
The whole world has changed so much with the onslaught of social media. Tweeting, Instagram, Snapchat. It’s just a different time and different world. It’s definitely a revolution, which is always good. It’s an exciting time.
You see, anyone can have their own record album now. Taylor Swift has made every 12 year old believe they can be a singer now. What I hate is that it gives everyone a platform to say really awful stuff about people. I love the good stuff, but I hate the bad stuff.
You have a huge following and your team is making great use of social media. [Vassar has 200,000 Facebook fans and 65,000 Twitter followers.]
We really are. I was late to the party on that. I have learned so much. I still have a lot to learn and hopefully will continue to do so.
What can we expect at your Alexandria show?
People tweet me live. They’re sitting in the audience with a song that they want to hear. Maybe it’s “American Child” or “Don’t Miss Your Life.” I get tweets for AC/DC or Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus [covers]. Whatever it may be, I get them all. I just go out there and play them; I don’t have a set list. It’s on the fly. Every show is different every night. So it’s kind of neat.
You’ve got your own online series, Songs from the Cellar…
It’s really amazing. Wait ‘til you see the new episodes. Some of the artists that are doing this thing with me, I’m just freaking out. I can’t believe that they’re going to come down to my cellar and talk about music and life and love. Whatever comes up, I feel like the David Letterman of the wine cellar.
How much has your college degree helped you in the music business?
I was a business major and I have a lot of businesses. I think in a way it has helped me a lot. A lot of artists don’t have any business experience whatsoever. They’ll go through their whole life and make millions of dollars and they’ll end up broke. I tell my kids the most important thing I can do as a parent is to educate you to the N-th degree. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to make mistakes. We all do. I love to go to colleges and schools and talk to people and do workshops with kids and just let them know.
Has your daughters’ taste in music influenced you?
Definitely. David Bowie passed away [on January 10]. Bowie is one of my heroes. His writing, his fashion. I got to tour Europe last year and I took my older daughter and a friend for her 16th birthday. She introduced me to Ed Sheeran’s music and then I said, “Now you listen to this,” and I introduced her to Queen and David Bowie.
She was like, “Wow, Dad that is awesome!” It’s amazing how she’ll play me something and I’ll play her something and we’ll be like, “Yeah that’s OK,” or, “Wow, I really like that. Play me more of that.” That’s how she felt about Queen.
Your career has had many highs — years at the top of the Academy of Country Music charts, singing at the White House, the Grand Ole Oprey, [singing] the National Anthem at professional sporting events and at NASCAR. What could possibly top all that for you in 2016?
For me, it’s a brand new record. It’s this tour. I’m so excited about “Songs from the Cellar.” All this stuff going on. I feel like I have more going on now than I ever have. I am just blessed that I get to do what I love every day.
Phil Vassar (Band) will perform February 11 at the Birchmere. Tickets are $45. For more information, visit www.birchmere.com.