WEDDING BELL BLUES

As Phil Vassar marches up the charts, he changes his plans to walk down the aisle

We don't know yet," he admits. "I can't tell you anything, 'cause we still don't know." Phil Vassar had been waiting for some time for fiancee Julie Wood to set the date for their wedding. Recently, Phil got his wish, and within two weeks, the invitations went out.

But just as suddenly, Phil's long-awaited wedding was called off. That turn of events left such a state of confusion that Phil himself can't say definitively whether he and Julie are still engaged.

"Everything's still up in the air," he says, "so we're just rockin' along!" Whether or not the pair ever walks down the aisle together, they're already together on the charts - Phil and Julie co-wrote his new hit, "That's When I Love You." Ironically, the song is a breezy affirmation of romantic bliss: When you're near, or you're far/You're in my heart no matter where you are.

Phil says the twists and turns in their relationship haven't dimmed his feelings about the tune.

"I love the song, and I love that we wrote it together," he says. "She's probably one of the best songwriters I know, so I'm happy that the song's out. I hope it does well."

Songwriting actually brought this couple together in the first place: Julie used to work for the Nashville company that publishes Phil's tunes.

In fact, it was Julie who convinced her boss to play Phil's song "Postmarked Birmingham" for BlackHawk - who then recorded and released it, giving Phil his first Top 40 hit as a writer in 1997.

Phil and Julie were already dating when they started writing together, and creating songs helped them build more intimacy and understanding.

"You do learn a lot about a person when you write a song with them," explains Phil. "It's a very revealing process. It's very personal, so it's interesting to see what you'll find out about somebody. Something will come up in a conversation and you'll go, 'Huh? I never knew you felt that.' "

Julie isn't his only interesting collaborator. He's been writing with Mac Davis, and has plans to collaborate with Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin and Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin.

"I know hundreds of his songs," Phil says of Bernie, the co-composer of most of Elton John's formidable pop catalog. "The fun thing is to think I'm getting the opportunity to write with people I idolized. It's really nice."

Reaching the point in his career where he gets to work with his heroes wasn't easy for Phil. After studying business administration in Virginia, he moved to Nashville in 1987 to pursue a recording career, but it took 13 years before he finally saw his self-titled first album in record stores.

After he came to Music City, Phil circulated his tapes - featuring early versions of songs such as "Little Red Rodeo," "Right On The Money" and "I'm Alright" - but no record company was interested. None, that is, until those very songs started getting recorded by Collin Raye, Alan Jackson and Jo Dee Messina. Suddenly, the labels took a second look at him, and Phil got his shot as a singer - which was what he had wanted in the first place.

"I didn't move to Nashville to be a songwriter," he says. "It's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a singer. I sang my whole life."

While waiting for the opportunity to do that, Phil was forced to stand on the sidelines and watch while his peers lived out his dream.

Garth Brooks arrived in town the same year as Phil, and was already mulling retirement by the time Phil's debut album was released in February 2000. Tim McGraw arrived two years later, and had a string of hits long before he recorded Phil's "My Next Thirty Years."

But Phil carried no jealousy as he saw other singers' quicker roads to success. "I think it's a blessing the way things happened for me," he reflects. "I look back in hindsight and say, 'Man, it took a while, but every bit of it was worth it.' Going to the clubs and packing up a piano and PA five or six nights a week was hard, but it was worth it."

Phil also spent those years songwriting and honing his onstage skills at A Hard Day's Night, the Nashville club he owned and later sold in 1999.

"Back then, I was working on my songwriting and piano playing, and trying to become an artist," he says. "And at the same time, I was supporting myself. That in itself is something."

Now Phil's years of struggling to be heard are over, and he's ready to complete his second album with new songs that will reflect his personal growth since achieving his dream.

"Albums are so revealing," he explains. "You listen to them and wonder, 'When they wrote this song, what were they thinking?' You really get to know the person and where they are in their life, and I think this album will definitely do that. Songwriters can't help but write songs that are autobiographical. I'm in a different time and place than I was four years ago, when I wrote the songs on the first album."

But the songs that put Phil on the charts - "Carlene," "Just Another Day In Paradise," "Rose Bouquet" and "Six-Pack Summer" - may have doomed his engagement in the process. The nonstop demands of a star's life have kept him away from home for weeks at a time, which can wear on any relationship.

"Even if you work 9 to 5, relationships are hard, no matter what you do," he admits. "And the music business takes you away a lot."

Phil admits he's still in shock over the rollercoaster curves and loops in his love life, but he's looking at it optimistically. "It'll pan out the way it's supposed to," he suggests. "We both believe that."

If nothing else, it ought to at least inspire a new song or two.

"Usually," he concludes, "when something substantial happens to you, at least some truthful songs come out of it."

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