GOING WITH THE FLOW

Life couldn't be sweeter for 'Rose Bouquet' singer Phil Vassar

Story by David Scarlett -- Photos by Morrison/Wulffraat

I was living that song as we wrote it," explains Phil Vassar. "And when you have to dig up your emotions like that, it's really hard."

Singer/songwriter Phil Vassar is making a personal confession about how he captured his own romantic bust-up in "Rose Bouquet," his recent bittersweet smash about a love that was supposed to last forever.

"But I've received heartfelt letters from people who've been through a break-up, and the song just hits home with them. They say, 'God, I cried when I first heard it - and I still do.' It's a song I'm very proud of."

Phil has a lot to be proud of these days. Not only has he scored hits with "Rose Bouquet" and "Carlene," but his "Just Another Day In Paradise" soared to No. 1, along with songs he wrote for Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina and Alan Jackson. He's also exploring the possibility of doing music for films, as well as writing with the legendary Bernie Taupin, Elton John's longtime collaborator and a professed fan of Phil's music.

And, as if all his professional good fortune wasn't enough, Phil recently became engaged to fellow songwriter Julie Wood. "Everything's great," he explains, "but we just sort of pass in the night these days because of our schedules."

Phil laughs at the suggestion that Julie just might have the inside track to getting her songs on his records. "No!" he insists emphatically, punctuating the statement with a grin. "I always try to put the best songs I can on the record - no matter the songwriter. That's all there is to it!" The grin gets bigger.

His debut album definitely has more than its share of best songs, including "Lucky As Me," "Joe And Rosalita" and the likely next single, "Six-Pack Summer," a feel-good tune that conjures up images of convertibles, wraparound sunglasses and playing "dashboard drummer" to a cranked radio.

"It's just a fun song - and the timing is right," says Phil. "No more sad songs for a little while," he adds with an assuring smile.

Phil smiles pretty easily these days. Sitting in a van parked in a Nashville-area pasture, he's enjoying a warm breeze while waiting for a photo shoot to begin. Spotting a few curious bovine visitors who've wandered onto the "set," he greets them with a big, bellowing "Moooooo!" This clearly is a man who's enjoying life.

And why not? He's doing what he's wanted to do ever since he dreamed of being a singer and songwriter as a kid back in Lynchburg, Va. "I felt like I just didn't have a choice. It was in my blood. It was in my soul to try to do this." And he's looked to some of the best for inspiration.

"The piano players like Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Joel, Ronnie Milsap and Bruce Hornsby are always my heroes," explains Phil, who's also a keyboardist. "But I looked at who wrote the songs - Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Don Henley - even at an early age. I wanted to follow in their footsteps."

For his next album, Phil has broadened his circle of co-writers to include Rob Thomas, Grammy-winning lead singer of the alternative rock band Matchbox Twenty. "When Matchbox was in town working on their album, Rob and I went to dinner and just hit it off," explains Phil. "I've cut one of our songs, 'Someone You Love,' for my new album, and I think he's going to sing on it if we can work it out with our touring schedules."

Phil's been touring a lot recently with his bud Kenny Chesney and is even talking about a possible duet with Kenny for the second album. He'll continue on the road through the summer and fall, including some shows with Martina McBride and a June 17 performance at Fan Fair in Nashville.

In his rare time off, Phil enjoys being with Haley, his nearly 3-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. "That's my life," he says tenderly. "And that's the hard part of being on the road. But she comes out with me sometimes, too. So it's not so bad." And when her daddy goes to work, little Haley gets a fast-paced eyeful!

"I don't even realize what I'm doing half the time on stage," he laughs. "I know I do run around a lot. It's just more fun! Just sitting behind a piano without moving makes me feel like I'm in a cage."

Phil's desire to keep moving comes as no surprise to anyone who's known him as a former decathlon track star, or as the guy who once cooked in his own restaurant south of Nashville while somehow finding time to run the business, write songs and sing at night.

"I want to do everything," he admits. "I just love the music business. I love performing. I love writing. I love being in the studio. I love it all."

But he's quick to point out that loving the studio doesn't mean he's a "tech head." Far from it. "I'm the only person I know without e-mail," he laughs. "I write with a little boom box that I paid $14 for about six years ago. I've written some pretty good songs on that thing."

Indeed he has. And his audience knows them about as well as he does.

"I go out every night, and I just can't get over everybody singing the words to a song I wrote in a room by myself, or with one of my friends. And all these people are singing it! It's really kind of a rush - and it's fun."

And Phil doesn't even try to hide just how much fun he's having.

"Hey, here I am in the middle of a field - with cow patties all around me - and I'm having a great time!! That's pretty neat."

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