SANDY CEREMONY

Phil Vassar hits the beach and elopes with his longtime love

Story by M.B. Roberts Photo by Pattridge

Phil Vassar is standing on the terrace of the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Fla., looking out over the white, sandy beach as the sun is about to set over the Gulf of Mexico. A soft ocean breeze blows gently through the fronds of the potted palms.

Though he's buttoned-up in a formal custom-tailored tuxedo, Phil feels completely serene. He is calm and collected despite the fact that he will cease to be a single man in a matter of minutes.

Let the elopement begin!

A classical guitar player begins to strum -- then Phil spots his fiancee, Julie Wood, walking slowly out onto the terrace carrying a bouquet of white roses.

"Holy smokes!" Phil says to himself quietly. "She is so beautiful."

Julie is indeed stunning in her white, shoulder-baring, fitted gown and her chapel-length veil. She's wearing the wedding band her stepfather gave to her mother, Johnel Harrison (something borrowed), and a diamond bracelet Phil surprised her with that morning (something new).

"It goes perfectly with my ring," beams Julie.

Moments before the intimate ceremony -- witnessed only by the couple's mothers -- Johnel pinned a tiny, baby blue ribbon to the hem of Julie's dress (something blue).

Julie takes Phil's hand and breaks into a picture-perfect smile as Johnel and Phil's mom, Dianne Vassar, look on. The minister steps in front of the couple and reads from several passages of scripture that Phil and Julie selected for their short ceremony. Phil and Julie turn toward each other and confidently exchange their vows.

The minister concludes, "You may now kiss the bride."

It took only six minutes for Phil and Julie to be pronounced husband and wife -- but it took nearly six years to get them there.

They met in 1996 when she was working for the Nashville company that publishes Phil's songs.

She liked a song he pitched, "Postmarked Birmingham," and convinced her boss to play it for BlackHawk.

"They cut the song," remembers Julie, "and Phil and I became songwriting partners and friends."

Soon, they were more than friends. She says she doesn't remember the exact moment she became smitten. "Phil has such a good heart," she smiles. "Once you get to know him, you just start falling for him. Plus he's so talented!"

Julie and Phil dated for almost three years before, in December of 2000, Phil popped the question.

"I was a nervous wreck!" remembers Phil. "We were in Oklahoma at her parents' ranch."

"He got on his knees!" chimes in Julie. "The ring was a surprise. But we had talked about getting married for so long, I knew that we would."

Once engaged, their biggest problem was setting the wedding date. "My career was just taking off," confides Phil. "And it seemed like we were never in the same city at the same time."

Finally, they fixed a date last December. Plans for a large wedding were made. Invitations went out. Then -- abruptly -- they called the whole thing off.

"It just got to be ... too much," says Phil, hesitantly.

Julie picks up the story: "There was just too much going on. We needed to regroup and do something simpler. I would recommend eloping to anybody!"

"It was fun this way," adds Phil. "To go down and forgo all the pomp and circumstance and just get married."

"That's what made it special," says Julie. "It was just the two of us, and our moms! We needed it to be that way. We don't get to spend that much time together. So it was great to do it on our own."

So with their schedules as busy as ever, how will they now manage to be together?

"We'll remedy this -- she'll come out on the road with me and meet me places. For us, I don't think absence makes the heart grow fonder," laughs Phil. "We just function better when we're around each other."

Being together is a good thing for newlyweds. But what about working together? Some claim that's a recipe for disaster.

"I don't think so," says Julie. "It's not like I'm working for Phil or he's working for me. Since we're both songwriters, we both have the same sort of creative energy."

The combination seems to be working. The pair penned Phil's current Top 5 smash, "That's When I Love You," in the car while driving to Florida several years ago.

"Julie gave me a card that said, 'That's When I Need You,' " says Phil. "The idea just stuck with us. So we translated it into this song that talks about how when you love someone so much, everything they do makes you love them more. Even the little things -- the quirky things."

The couple also wrote three songs on Phil's upcoming album, American Child, due this summer. The title cut, which is currently climbing the charts, was inspired by Phil's 3-year-old daughter, Haley, from his previous marriage.

" 'American Child' is a story about four generations of my family," he explains. "It goes from Haley to my grandfather. It's about growing up and being able to dream. I want Haley to know she can grow up and be anything she wants to be."

Phil and his new bride recently bought a new home in Nashville, which Julie says is the perfect place for a child to grow up.

"Haley spends a ton of time here," says Julie. "She already loves it. There's 10 acres of land and a pool.

It's a very homey, older house. It seems like we always have friends over or a relative staying at our house. We wanted to have a place where there was room for everybody."

As Phil and Julie prepare to move into their new home, friends are already asking about their plans for new additions. And they're not talking renovations!

"We'll just have to wait and see," smiles Phil.

No rush. The piano man who waited six years to elope knows that good things come to those who wait.

"You've got to stick it out," he says.

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