It’s no wonder Nashville singer-songwriter Phil Vassar feels comfortable in a winery setting.
Vassar, who performs Thursday at Tooth and Nail Winery in Paso Robles, regularly invites wine experts and musicians such as Steve Cropper, Charlie Daniels and John Rich of Big & Rich into his home wine cellar – a 1930s bomb shelter turned hip hangout —for drinks, songs and conversation. He shares their jam sessions via his web series, “Songs from the Cellar.”
“I thought, ‘This would be a fun time — just have a glass of wine and talk about whatever crosses our minds,’” said Vassar, who launched “Songs from the Cellar” in December. “It seemed like such a cool mix, a meeting of the two worlds.”
It’s not the first time Vassar has blended those two spheres, either. He owned a Nashville nightclub while penning hits for Alan Jackson (“Right on the Money”), Tim McGraw (“For a Little While”), Jo Dee Messina (“Bye Bye,” “I’m Alright”) and Blackhawk (“Postmarked Birmingham”). He’s also enjoyed a successful recording career of his own, thanks to chart-toppers such as “Carlene,” “Just Another Day in Paradise” and “That’s When I Love You.”
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“I’ve always, my whole life, wanted to sing. I never wanted to do anything else,” said Vassar, who grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. While attending James Madison University in nearby Harrisonburg, Virginia, he started playing piano and landing gigs in local clubs.
“I already knew how to entertain.” he explained. “The hard part was trying to figure out how to write songs.”
Vassar was still running Hard Day’s Nightclub in Nashville when his songwriting career took off in the mid-1990s. He first landed a publishing contract with EMI, then signed a record deal with Arista in 1998.
Vassar’s self-titled debut album, released in 2000, earned him the Academy of Country Music’s award for top new male vocalist. The same year, he opened for McGraw’s joint tour with wife Faith Hill, the Soul2Soul Tour.
“One day I’m playing in a piano bar, and (literally) the next weekend I’m playing in an arena for 25,000 people,” recalled Vassar, who performed at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles in 2003, 2004 and 2007.
Over the years, Vassar has released a total of six studio albums, scoring 10 No. 1 singles and 26 Top 40 hits with songs such as “In a Real Love” and “Six-Pack Summer.” He’s also won two Songwriter of the Year awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
“Before the web, before you knew what everybody was eating for lunch every day, you had to listen to these records to tell what was going on,” Vassar said. “Listen to this album and you could tell he (the artist) just got married. Listen to this album and you could tell he just got divorced. … It was all there in the music.”
“I like hearing songs that move me, maybe make me feel something,” he said. “That’s what I try to do when I write.”
In his song “Just Another Day in Paradise,” Vassar extols the everyday trials and joys of domestic life. He deals with the aftermath of his divorce in “It’s Only Love” and mourns time spent away from his kids in “Don’t Miss Your Life.”
Noting that some songwriters are adept at fiction, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to make it up,” he said with a laugh. “Every song that I write, I’ve lived it.”
Vassar has so many songs at his disposal that “I don’t even have a set list. I just ask (the audience members) what they want and I play it,” he said. “It’s really fun that way. It keeps it spontaneous and off the cuff.”
Lately, he said, he and his band have been getting a lot of requests for Prince songs. They’ll usually play “Purple Rain” halfway through the show and segue from “Little Red Corvette” to “Little Red Rodeo,” the hit song he wrote for Collin Raye.
At Thursday’s concert, which is limited to ages 21 and older, audiences will hear a mix of familiar hits and two or three new songs from Vassar’s upcoming album, “American Soul,” his long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s “Traveling Circus.” “If the audience likes them, I’ll play more,” said Vassar, who plans to release “American Soul” in September.
Whatever he ends up playing, Vassar promises local concertgoers a good time. “We just get on stage and have fun,” he said.