Whether his songs are identified with other artists or showcased on his own albums, singer-songwriter Phil Vassar has an enviable list of hits he penned for a who’s who in country music before launching his solo career and earning a string of awards. Fans can catch him on stage at the Raue Center For The Arts in Crystal Lake at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18.
His voice and piano playing are distinctive, and will be showcased in what’s described as the piano bar tour, with accompaniment by his longtime collaborator, the accomplished guitarist Jeff Smith.
“The thing I love [is] these shows are stripped down,” said Vassar from his home in Nashville, noting he has performed with Smith for decades. “I really do like when it’s all about the song and the songwriter, and I think it’s more personable. You can talk to the audience – ask what they want to hear – like you’re sitting in your living room. That’s what I like. … I don’t have a set list ever.”
Irresistibly upbeat, Vassar’s signature songs comprise 10 No. 1 singles and 27 Top 40 hits, including “Carlene,” “Just Another Day in Paradise,” “Six-Pack Summer” and “When I Love You.”
His songwriting career blossomed in the mid-’90s, when he landed a publishing contract with EMI and penned 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”). He signed a record deal of his own with Arista in 1998, and was named ASCAP’s Country Songwriter of the Year in 1999 and 2001, and ACM’s Top New Male Vocalist.
Except for a few piano classes in college, Vassar is self-taught on the instrument. And while he learned to play guitar, it’s the piano that sings to him.
“I’m more of a rock ’n’ roll player,” said Vassar, citing musical heroes such as Billy Joel, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, and Elton John.
“I learned to play from Elton and guys like that,” he said. “It was good for me as a writer. I wanted to play good enough to be able to write songs and that helped.”
Vassar gravitated toward country music, a style that resonated with many of his heroes.
Lionel Richie, with Alabama roots, had a soulful sound and country sensibility that really spoke to him, said Vassar, adding a favorite tune is Elton John’s “Country Comfort” with its steel guitar. He’ll incorporate some covers of music by his favorite artists as part of the show.
Vassar has made sure to be in the audience to hear such greats as James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne.
“I’m such a lover of great songs,” Vassar said.
He’s been breaking new artistic ground with the televised show “Songs From the Cellar,” featuring artists, songwriters, entertainers and athletes. Each installment features conversations and musical collaborations; past episodes are available as podcasts. Guests have ranged from Jo Dee Messina, Lonestar, Brothers Osborne and Brenda Lee to Peter Frampton, Styx and Dennis Quaid.
“All these amazing artists that came in and did it with me; we just had so much fun,” Vassar said. “We just sat in the wine cellar and played music – a pretty magical thing.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Phil Vassar in concert
WHERE: Raue Center For The Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake
WHEN: 7 p.m. Nov. 18
INFORMATION: www.rauecenter.org, 815-356-9212