February 25, 2012

Album Overview: Phil Vassar's 'Traveling Circus'

Author's note: Below is one of the articles I wrote in 2009 that recently was purged from the site of an online publication I wrote for. I am posting it here for fans of the artist.

CD Overview: Phil Vassar's 'Traveling Circus'

Hit-maker Phil Vassar, who's easily the best-known piano-playin' country star on the circuit today, is releasing his much-anticipated new studio album, Traveling Circus.

Award-winning country artist Phil Vassar is one of the seemingly few piano-playing solo acts of his genre. In fact, when one thinks of piano men on the music scene, it's performers such as Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and the late Ray Charles who come to mind more often than any ivory-tickler on the country scene.

The Virginia-born Vassar, however, has persisted in his love for both piano and country music, and on his latest CD, Traveling Circus, he further establishes himself as one of the genre's preeminent piano players, having resisted the warnings of Nashville's industry powers that once told him he'd have to leave his instrument of choice behind if he wanted to become a commercially viable artist in country music.

Phil Vassar: Piano Player-turned-Country Star

Remembering that time, Vassar, along with fellow piano man James Slater, penned Where Have All the Pianos Gone as a tribute to the instrument's masters who've somehow managed to, increasingly, be MIA on the popular radioscape. The song is the final track, No. 11, on Vassar's brand-new Traveling Circus CD, which will be available in stores Dec. 15, 2009, just in time to find its way into fans' Christmas stockings.

"When I got town, nobody wanted to hear about a piano," recalled Vassar in a November 2009 interview with Suite101 about his latest CD's music. "I literally had record-label heads tell me I would have to put on a (cowboy) hat and start playing guitar, but I stuck to my guns."

'Traveling Circus' Features Singer's Touring Musicians

These days, Vassar, largely, can call the creative shots. In turn, when it came time to recordTraveling Circus, which is the entertainer's fifth solo disc to date, he had the luxury of taking more time to create the record, and in doing so, he achieved a first by opting to have his road band, not studio players, join him on the album. The result is a more homogeneous musical product from a performer who's demonstrated he can effortlessly tackle a variety of emotions in both voice and via his tunesmithing.

Everywhere I Go is the current single release from the album. Penned by Vassar and Jeffrey Steele, the track is making its way up the U.S. country charts at this writing, and in Vassar's view, it's "one of the more powerful songs on the album," he said, and one that can apply almost any relationship, from a broken friendship to a divorce.

Cowboy John Wayne Provides Song Inspiration

The blond musician had a hand in penning all of the tracks on Traveling Circus, including one about a childhood icon, John Wayne, that he wrote with Tom Douglas.

"I never get sick of hearing it," he recently shared about the song. 'Writing it, we kept thinking about the Old West and the heroes we grew up with. As a very small kid, my dad loved John Wayne. How different the world is now. Chivalry, how you treat a woman, treat a friend--that's all gone. The Golden Rule doesn't seem to apply anymore. Nothing seems to last.

"Everybody wants a quick fix now, from disposable razors to disposable relationships," he continued. "Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame. People used to really work at sticking together and making things last. That's what John Wayne represents for me; he was really a man's man."

Singer's New CD Features Hit-Country Music

As for a song about a ladies man, well, Traveling Circus boasts one of those, too, sort of, with the previously debuted Bobbi with An I song, a number Vassar penned with his frequent writing partner, hit-tunesmith Craig Wiseman.

humorous music clip in honor of the tune was released earlier this year, and believe it or not, the song was inspired by a real-life ladies man who liked to dress like one of the girls to get their attention.

"Craig Wiseman and I were laughing one day about that one due in a small town who always likes to dress up," Vassar said. "Bobbi is actually a guy I knew--this outrageous guy who showed up at a club one night dressed as a girl. It was just a funny way to pick up girls, and women were all over him!"

Parenthood Provides Impetus for a Different Kind of Love Song
Tackling a different emotion, Vassar's new record also features a song about being a dad titledShe's On Her Way. The song is perhaps the most revealing track on the 11-song offering, because it's transparent in expressing a father's unconditional love for his daughter.

"When I had my first daughter, Haley, sitting in the waiting room, this older guy came up and talked to me," Vassar recalled during the recent interview. "A lot of this song came directly out of that conversation. He said, 'Your daughter is the one woman you are going to love unconditionally for the rest of your life. That just hit me between the eyes. ... No matter what happens, she's my daughter. They sure grow up fast. ..."

Country Songwriters Kenny Chesney, Phil Vassar Collaborate

Elsewhere on Traveling Circus, Vassar tackles the perennial relationship of romantic love, with tracks such as Save Tonight for Me, which focuses on the need for couples to take time out for one another; A Year from Now, which is a number--and heartache--that Vassar lived through; and I Will Remember You, which Vassar penned with one of today's biggest country stars.

Referring to the latter tune, "I wrote this song with Kenny Chesney years ago, when he was going through a break-up," Vassar said. "Moving on from something like that, you always remember somebody ... the good times, great moments, how much you really loved somebody."

If there's an overriding feel or spirit to Traveling Circus, though, it rests with the "L" words; namely, Life and Lemonade, respectively. The former is the first track on Vassar's new CD, and its intro, which features the singer-songwriter in the role of ringmaster, is about hanging on for the ride through all its twists and turns.

"Good, bad or ugly, life deals its hand," Vassar said, matter of factly. "It doesn't care who or what you are, it just happens. so enjoy it when it's good. Handle it when it's not."
Lemonade, meanwhile, seems to embody Vassar's long-term outlook, and fans of the artist will likely take note of this, too. Its message, quite simply, is that come what may, be it failed exams or heartbreak, "it's all going to be OK," the musician said. And sometimes, just knowing that, if nothing else, is enough.

Country Fans Score with Singer-Songwriter's New CD

Fans of Vassar won't be disappointed in the Traveling Circus he brings to town. Indeed, the offering takes listeners on a carousel of emotions, from kick-back party tunes such as Tequila Town to the unavoidable heartbreaks that life holds.

Along the way, however, "Ringmaster Vassar" is timely in his reminders to music "ticket-holders" that, although the ride of Life is often bumpy, tomorrow's always a new day, with the potential to experience enduring heroes, unconditional love and perhaps best of all, a bit of sweet Lemonade.

February 24, 2012

Country Star Couple Preserves Music History

Author's note:  Below is one of my articles from 2008 that was contained on a music site that has purged its archives. I am posting the piece here because it was a reader favorite.

Country Star Couple Preserves Music History

Thanks to the generosity of country singers Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, the Country Music Hall of Fame is now home to even more priceless treasures.

Demonstrating their lifelong love for country music, Grand Ole Opry stars Connie Smith and Marty Stuart have donated priceless memorabilia that represents the lives and music of the genre's most iconic artists to the Country Music Hall of Fame for preservation.

Husband-and-wife singers Stuart and Smith--both established recording artists long before their 1997 nuptials--presented the Nashville-based hall of fame with during a "gift of love" ceremony earlier this year.

Country Singers Preserve Country Music History

From designer stage clothes and instruments, to priceless recordings, artifacts and custom-made accessories, the country-music memories given to the museum for public viewing were never publicly displayed until now, reported Jeremy Rush of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Four-time Grammy recipient Stuart, a Mississippi native whose neo-traditionalist career began during his teens as a mandolin prodigy and player for Lester Flatt, has been a connoisseur of country-music memorabilia for nearly three decades. During that time, he's amassed a private collection of some 20,000-plus pieces that represent the careers of country legends such as Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and bluegrass-great Flatt.

"This all started in my bedroom at home, way before I left Mississippi," Stuart said, regarding the 2008 hall of fame donation. "Whether it was a Country Song Round-Up (magazine) or a photograph or a record collection, it was country music that drew my heart. In the middle of Mississippi, so many kinds of music came, but it was Nashville and country music that pulled my heart."

Country Music Legends: From Hank  Sr. and Johnny Cash to Lester Flatt

Among the many irreplaceable gifts donated by the couple were a satchel that Hank Williams Sr. toted his songs in, as well as the suitcase and overcoat that were with him when the eternally 29-year-old died. The pair also gave the museum the dobro played by Roy Nichols on the opening measures of Haggard's classic recording of Mama Tried, along with Manuel-designed clothing and boots worn by Cash, and Flatt's now-famous, pawn shop-purchased 1950 Martin D-28 guitar, which is known as "the holy grail of bluegrass guitars."

Some of the Hank Sr. items the couple donated, in fact, are now on display as part of the museum's major exhibition, Family Tradition: The Williams Legacy, that opened in March 2008 for a nearly two-year run.

Grand Ole Opry Stars Share Personal Country Music Collectibles

Regarding donations representing the couple's individual careers, Smith-who established her country career in the '60s and '70s with a string of hits and numerous Grammy, Music City Newsand Country Music Association nominations-gave the museum an acetate of her first RCA recording session that included the breakout single, Once a Day, which was the first-ever debut single by a female country artist to reach No. 1.

Written by Bill Anderson, who is credited with discovering Smith, the song held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard country charts for eight weeks in 1964 and stayed on the charts for 28 weeks total, propelling Smith to "overnight" country stardom. To date, it still claims the record for the most weeks spent at No. 1 by a female country artist.

According to the hall of fame's records, Smith-who also is a Grammy-nominated gospel singer-recorded the acetate at RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville on July 16, 1964. Once a Day, which was the third song recorded that day, and because of its tremendous success, Smith-from that time on-created a policy for every recording session, where she cuts the song she most believes in as the third track each time. Doing so, she has indicated, allows her voice to warm up, her musicians "to settle in" and "everybody to get in the groove."

Although Smith has remarked that she does not know where mementos from her early career are today, the Grand Ole Opry star said she and her husband were delighted to donate the items they've managed to accrue for historic preservation with the museum.

Marty Stuart Shares Bluegrass, Country Music Memorabilia

The star of The Marty Stuart Show, meanwhile, who scored his biggest commercial success in the '90s as an artist for MCA Records, donated an eye-popping list of personal artifacts, including a pink-paisley Fender Telecaster that he named "Connie Smith" because "it was pretty and had a twang to it" and a rhinestoned, embroidered stage costume known as "The Chandelier," because of its long rhinestone fringe. 
Stuart wore the shirt for a 1992 Grammy performance with Travis Tritt, where the duo took home the evening's Best Country Vocal Collaboration trophy for The Whiskey Ain't Workin'.

"Marty has taught me so much about preserving the heritage of the people I have loved so dearly," Smith said at the donation event. "It really is a love gift from us. I personally know how much he loves some of these (donated items). I think a gift is when you give something you love and that you treasure, and Marty is the best at doing that. I am so proud to be here to do my part, and I am so proud to be here as his wife."

Connie Smith, Wikipedia entry. Accessed Nov. 16, 2008.

Description of Items Donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Collection by 

Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, Gift of Love Ceremony, Feb. 13, 2008. Email communication received by the author from the hall of fame.

Shelburne, Craig. Marty Stuart, Connie Smith Offer "Love Gifts" to Hall of Fame, CMT News. Accessed Nov. 16, 2008.

Country music's Eric Durrance scores with debut

Author's note: One of the music sites I write for has purged more than 50,000 stories from his database as part of its "overall," and unfortunately, some of the stories its deleted were stories I penned that were popular with readers. In turn, I will be posting several of these deleted stories here on my personal blog so readers still have access to them. ... Thanks for reading.

Country music's Eric Durrance scores with debut

With production support from Teddy Gentry, co-founder of country super-group Alabama, new artist Eric Durrance has leapt onto the CMT video scene and U.S. country charts.

Country singer-songwriter Eric Durrance is no stranger to the Billboard charts, thanks to his past radio success with the now-disbanded Big Dismal, a Christian-rock act that was named one of "Five Christian Bands on the Rise" by Rolling Stone and hit No. 3 on the Christian charts with itsReality single.

In spite of the group’s positive fan and radio reception and the critical acclaim of its May 2003Believe album for Wind-Up Records, Big Dismal disbanded in ’07 and its members, including frontman Durrance, moved on to other musical projects.

New Country Music CD Lands on Billboard Country Charts

These days, the Florida-reared lead singer/guitarist is again making the music scene, but this time, on the country music charts with his debut solo CD and its first single, both titled Angels Fly Away, that was released digitally Sept. 16, 2008, by Wind-Up’s Nashville division. The 11-song album landed in the No. 70 spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Albums during the first week of November.

For some, the move from Christian to country music might seem like an attempt to take advantage of the youth-infused wave of new country hitmakers that Nashville seems to be riding. But for Durrance, who grew up on a Tallahassee farm with both gospel and country music influences, the jump to his label’s Nashville side is merely a natural progression.

Growing up, the self-taught musician "learned to play a little bit of everything,” he has said. “My stepfather was a drummer, guitarist, piano player and one heck of a singer, and my mom and grandfather taught me to sing harmony.

“My grandparents … they’re strong and faithful individuals who taught me to be honest and follow my heart and they just love George Jones,” he added. “So I’m at home in country."

New Country Singer Boasts Big-Name Producer Backing

Durrance’s new album, Angels Fly Away, has big-name talent behind it, with producer credit from Teddy Gentry, a founding member of Alabama who’s worked with country group Emerson Drive, and Mark Bright, who’s produced contemporary country stars Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood, among others.

"I’m really a songwriter first and I always put the song first,” Durrance shared, recalling the recording experience. “Teddy and I were completely in tune with one another when it came to selecting the right songs for this project. He’s helped us to put together a strong collection of musical stories that I think will turn the listeners’ ear and then they’ll hear it with heart.

"Like good wine, Teddy taught me that a good country song has to ‘breathe.’ I learned the importance of ‘tension and release,’” he continued. "When I worked with Mark, he pushed me to my full potential; I really learned to stretch my vocal range and his philosophy is to ‘mark’ your music. …"

Getting the chance to work with Gentry and Bright was a boon for Durrance, but the project, in a sense, was bittersweet since his former manager, Dan Goodwin, was killed in a motorcycle accident in December 2007. The new country hitmaker, who likens their partnership to a “father/son” relationship, has shared that the current CD “captures everything” he and Godwin worked toward. In turn, Durrance dedicated Angels Fly Away to his late manager.

"He gave me freedom and reined me in to guide me when I needed it,” Durrance revealed. “From a business perspective, he watched out for my best interests and reminded me to listen to my heart; from a personal perspective, he was my ‘heart and soul’ manager. This CD has Dan’s spirit throughout."

Country Songs Come that Come from the Heart

Influenced by the harmonious sounds of The Eagles and the in inherent lyrical simplicity of tunesmiths such as Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Durrance professed that he writes music from the heart.
“I like to write music that puts body and soul out there and has a magical way of saying what everyone feels. I like to be real and I believe a good, honest song is the key to an artist’s success."
Recently, Country Music Television recognized Durrance’s country-fan appeal and tapped the new guy on the block to serve as the opener on the CMT on Tour ’08 bill, with headliner Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum.

CMT Tour Earns Durrance Country Fans, Country Music Video Success

Although the CMT bill afforded Durrance and his six-man band only 20 minutes on stage each night, the versatile artist made the most of his spotlight time and earned a bevy of new country fans during the 20-date tour. As evidence, just-released music video, Turn It Off, is featured on CMT and a fan favorite, including a live-version video.

“The tour has gone great,” Durrance said in a recent interview with Suite 101. “I feel like I have grown so much since it started. Lady A and Jason Aldean have been a pleasure to work with … (and) next for me is some good time at home with the family. “But I have to say, the CMT tour has been a dream come true in so many ways. I’ve really done a lot of soul searching and growing as a person and artist; that’s what the road does to you.”

Big Dismal, Wikipedia entry, Accessed Nov. 22, 2008.
Eric Durrance, artist bio. Courtesy of Wind-Up Records.
Personal communication, Eric Durrance, Nov. 19, 2008.

Marty Stuart's 'Tear The Woodpile Down' CD set for April 24 release

Marty Stuart's Tear The Woodpile Down CD set for April 24 release 

Operation Troop Aid appoints Tracy Lawrence to its board following benefit show

Operation Troop Aid appoints Tracy Lawrence to its board following benefit show