Phil Vassar, who plays Silver Mountain this Saturday, is a pretty big country star. He's had six top 10 country singles and a gold record, though you'd never guess at that level of success by looking at his first album. Success did come, though, and quickly. And to examine Phil Vassar's subsequent album covers is to witness how fast Nashville can rehabilitate an image.
His self-titled 2000 debut shows him wearing a formless jacket and sharing the frame with a grand piano. Looking like a cross between my middle school band teacher (looking unhappy with my performance as second chair French horn) and Billy Joel, Vassar's thinning hair is parted to the side and swept back off his face. It's the kind of cover that appeals to connoisseurs of the genre and middle-aged Patsy Cline fans. It announces Vassar as Nashville's version of the Piano Man -- not the kind of thing you'd expect to fly off store shelves. This is the kind of album cover created for songwriters who go solo, which, in 2000, is all that Phil Vassar was.
Vassar got his first songwriting break in 1996 when Engelbert Humperdinck recorded his song "Once in a While." He went on to write songs for Jo Dee Messina and Tim McGraw, also penning "Little Red Rodeo," which Collin Raye turned into the ubiquitous summer crossover smash hit of 1997. By 2000, Vassar was an A-list songwriter, but that unadorned debut album indicates that no one at Arista Nashville expected much from him as a singer.
Then came the country-chart-topping mega-hits. "Just Another Day in Paradise," "Carlene" and "That's When I Love You" all broke the country top 10, along with "Six-Pack Summer," which sounds nothing like the work of a middle-school band teacher.
Then came the marketing gurus. This Vassar is no mere songwriter, they realized -- way after the fact -- this is an entertainer! Further, they understood, he'd been entirely miscast among the pattern-balding frock coat set.
Time for an extreme makeover, Nashville-style.
American Child (2002), his second album, finds him on the cover in a neo-Western shirt of the kind popularized by superstar Tim McGraw. His hair's been highlighted, and battered with what looks like a pretty heavy Minoxodil regimen. Perhaps most important for a rising country star, he's grown sideburns and a goatee. There is no piano to be found, completing the transformation from John Tesh's unfortunate older brother to the Nashville pantheon's newest WASPy pop god.
Bring on more country hits: "American Child," "Ultimate Love" and "This Is God." The latter, written from God's perspective, shows Vassar striking a different chord than other country stars in the wake of 9/11. No Toby Keith-ian threats of boots in Arab asses here -- the song has God saying such things as "You fight each other in my name / Treat life like it's a foolish game" and "All I'm asking for is love / Haven't you hurt yourselves enough?" That's a unique perspective and a welcome change. (If you like "This Is God," the song, you can now buy This Is God, the book.)
For his latest album cover (Shaken, Not Stirred, 2004), Vassar follows the trend of country stars posing in faux-vintage T-shirts like Abercrombie models, affecting a style more blue-collar than country-western. His factory-faded pink ringer tee has "Shaken, Not Stirred" screen-printed on it. It's either a pop charts crossover bid or an exercise in self-parody. It's unclear which, but if he wanted to, he could probably score a sweet NASCAR tie-in.
And, for our purposes, that's the perfect example of Vassar's dual-faceted nature. He's an intelligent, thoughtful songwriter who doesn't mind condescending to Nashville's look-of-the-minute popularity grab.
So Saturday, at Silver Mountain, you can expect both his singer-songwriter fans and plenty of CMT groupies. Amid the bleached tips you'll find a few cowboy hats; a few pairs of wranglers interspersed with waves of destroyed vintage-washed jeans. Vassar will be the guy on stage, behind the piano (as much a prop now as an instrument), wearing a newly faded Pink Floyd T-shirt. (Luke Baumgarten)
Phil Vassar at Silver Mountain on Saturday, Aug. 27, at 7 pm. Gates open at 5:30 pm. Tickets: $29.95, general admission; $39.95, VIP Silver Circle. Call (800) 204-6428.
Blood Red Rock | Rock 'n' roll is a visceral delight best served hot. And wouldn't you know it? Mootsy's is serving up one ballsy, blistering night of the stuff this Saturday as the club welcomes NYC band Crimson Sweet along with two of Spokane's premier loud/fast practitioners, the Dee Farmin Army and the Blowouts. I can almost hear the walls melting.
Crimson Sweet is a blazing quartet (Polly Watson on guitars and vox, Rich Lathers on guitar, Robbie Congress on bass and Al Huckabee on drums) that delivers stripped-down melodies, screaming guitars and insistent female vocals all stacked high atop a churning rhythm section that that lunges and races. It all comes across a little like Cheap Trick and the Runaways sucked together through a supercharger.
The band has toured the country extensively over the last few years and is currently gearing up for the release its second full-length record, Eat the Night (on Shake It Records), which delivers on the Crimson Sweet promise of fast, forward, furious and, above all, scorching r'n'r goodies that go extremely well with cold beer.
Eat the night? Let's drink it instead. (Mike Corrigan)
Crimson Sweet, the Dee Farmin Army, the Blowouts at Mootsy's on Saturday, Aug. 27, at 9:30 pm. Cover: $5. Call 838-1570.