ALBUM REVIEW: Phil Vassar – ‘Stripped Down’

LifeInASong_UK

In a week that included new album releases from Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch, one that seems to have escaped a little under-the-radar is a new 8-track compilation from Phil Vassar.

‘Stripped Back’ is Phil’s first studio album since 2016’s ‘American South’, and features songs that he has written over the last 20 years, but the majority have never before been recorded. Some were hits for other artists, but the intention was to present stripped-back versions with minimal production.

2020 is a milestone for Vassar. He had his first #1 record in 2000 with ‘Just Another Day In Paradise’, and he will be embarking on the ‘Histeria Tour’ in March running through until July. US dates only. He has just commenced the ‘Stripped Down Tour’, which showcases tracks from the new album. Again, this includes US dates only and concludes mid-February. It’s an acoustic tour.

It’s easy to overlook this guy’s pedigree. He has had 10 #1 singles and 26 top 40 hits, but hasn’t appeared in the top 30 since 2007 when ‘Love Is A Beautiful Thing’ hit #2 on the country chart. Whilst the hits and the chart appearances may have waned, the same can hardly be said about his profile.

His ‘Songs From The Cellar’ series, filmed at Phil’s mansion in Nashville which features stories, performances and the occasional bottle of wine, is compelling viewing for country music fans.

He appeared at the very first Buckle & Boots festival and has returned to the UK since on a mini tour. You could argue strongly that Phil Vassar is the finest pianist in country music. He would also certainly be in contention for the most energetic and dynamic showman.

He penned one of our favourite country songs, ‘The Sound Of A Million Dreams’ which was recorded originally by David Nail.

The ‘Stripped Down’ album features collaborations from high profile Nashville writers, including Ross Copperman, John Rich, Don Sampson and Charlie Black, but he will prbably be most proud of the co-write with his daughter Haley on ‘This Is Where The End Starts’, which also features her vocals. It’s the lead single from the project.

The opener ‘Postmarked Birmingham’ (Alabama, not West Midlands!) was originally featured on BlackHawk’s ‘Love And Gravity’ album in October 1997, and became a top 40 single for the band.

It was a song that Phil always wanted to record himself, and when the planning for this project took place, it was the first on the list of inclusions. It’s perhaps the best example of the album’s laid back presentation. The original was full-on, with vocal harmonies and strings. Vassar’s version is very heavily piano-based and allows the vocals to shine.

His songwriting career has been so extensive that it would have been easy for him have selected songs that had greater exposure. His songs have been recorded by Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Kenny Rogers and Alan Jackson, but those songs were not selected. The album is enhanced by the novelty factor. These songs may have been written over the course of the last 20 years, but they are not hugely recognisable as Phil Vassar songs, which gives the album a degree of freshness.  

His die-hard fans will probably know them, but the wider audience will be experiencing these songs for the first time.

‘Lemonade’ from his 2009 ‘Travelling Circus’ album has been given a make-over rather than a radical re-make. Again, there’s an emphasis on the vocal and piano, but it will remain a fan favourite.

The album demonstrates perfectly the relevance that Phil Vassar retains in 2020. There will always be a place in country music for someone with the professionalism, talent and musicianship that is on show here.

Greatly recommended. 

Graham Wharton

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