Child and Family Services of New Hampshire’s annual Concerts for the Cause kick off with a June 3 show at Manchester’s Palace Theatre followed by another at the Lebanon Opera House on June 4, both starring country rocker Phil Vassar and Boston duo Farren-Butcher, Inc. The June 22 finale at Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord is a “Blues Summit” with the Robert Cray Band and opener Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters.
Phil Vassar is a take-charge guy. Before selling his first song, he bought his own restaurant just to have a place to gig.
“I was playing a bunch of clubs in Nashville and developed this big following,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “Then I had the opportunity — this building came up for sale, and one thing led to another and after about a year or two of negotiating, they just about gave it to me. So I started out there and stayed until I sold it and put out my first single.”
That song, 1999’s “Carlene,” reached the top five, and the follow-up, “Just Another Day in Paradise,” became Vassar’s first number-one record. As a songwriter, he’s also penned chart-topping hits for Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw and Jo Dee Messina. But after five albums in 10 years, Vassar grew weary of working for the music industry, and decided to start his own label, called Rodeowave.
“A lot of people made a lot of money and now there’s a shell of a business,” he says. “They didn’t change when they had the chance, and in business there’s the quick and the dead.”
Though Vassar is Rodeowave’s only artist at the moment, he has plans to recruit talent in the future.
“There are a lot of guys I know who aren’t on a record label anywhere,” he says. “Which is good for them — if they’re on a major label they’re looking at three to four years before they even get a shot at a single.”
A recent call Vassar received from movie director Don Handfield helped the decision to go it alone. Handfield needed a song for the closing credits of Touchback, due for release later this year. The film stars Kurt Russell as a former high school jock recalling the injury that ended a promising football career.
Vassar wrote, recorded and mixed the song in one day, and delivered it to Handfield that night. “Just having the ability to do something like that,” he says with amazement. “At a major label I’d have to run it up the flagpole and get 50 different people to sign off on it. It would have never happened, because they needed it right away. It’s stuff that can get done right now; I don’t’ have to ask anybody, and that’s a refreshing thing.”
Vassar released the label’s first single on May 23. “Let’s Get Together” is a party-ready record, with images of iced-down beer, revelers playing air guitar to classic rock and a driveway lined with the new country staple, tiki torches. “There ain’t no curfew here tonight,” Vassar sings. “We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”
He co-wrote the tune late last year with Tony Mullins (Rascal Flatts, Montgomery Gentry and Kenny Chesney) after one too many snowy days in Nashville. “It was winter, cold and nasty, and we were just thinking about good weather,” he says. “That’s where the song came from, a longing for … when it wasn’t 20 degrees outside.”
As the summer approaches, Vassar is back in his element, his schedule filled with outdoor shows and festivals like the recent Suwannee River Jam in Florida.
“We just played at the Preakness last weekend, it was tens of thousands of people, nuts and crazy, people drinking at 10 a.m. and all,” he says. “I get to do a lot of different venues and it makes for different kinds of shows. “
A loose mood will likely prevail for Vassar’s New Hampshire appearances. “It’s always fun — we go out there without a set list and everyone gets involved,” he says enthusiastically. “We play songs we don’t know and anything from requests, album cuts, deep tracks.”
Charity events are a regular part of Vassar’s work. This is his first effort for CFSNH, an organization that works on behalf of families, with a particular focus on at-risk children. All the money raised will be spent locally on services for victims of abuse and neglect, troubled youth, children in foster care, babies at risk and impoverished families.
“I hope we raise a lot of money. I do a lot of benefits for kids,” says Vassar, who has two daughters aged 7 and 12. “Kids are growing up faster and they’re getting into things, there’s more availability of drugs, it’s very scary. So I’m proud to be part of it.”