“ think I’ll take a moment to celebrate my age,” begins Tim McGraw’s “My Next Thirty Years,” just one of the energetic tunes by then little-known songwriter Phil Vassar that invaded country radio between 1998 and 2000. It’s an impressive string of hits that includes Jo Dee Messina’s record-breaking “Bye Bye” and “I’m Alright,” and Collin Raye’s “Little Red Rodeo.” And for Vassar, it’s as much a part of his legacy as the hits like “Carlene” and “Just Another Day in Paradise” that he earned after finally launching a recording career in 2000.
So when it was time to take a moment to celebrate that career, on his just-released Greatest Hits Volume I, Vassar seized the chance to record his own versions of the famous tunes. The result is an unusually fresh and satisfying retrospective that examines his career from every angle. Just a few days before the Academy of Country Music Awards, we caught Vassar in between West Coast gigs to reminisce about those early hits.
Scene: Do you perform those songs much in concert?
Phil Vassar: You know what, I do them all the time. And every time I play “30 Years” or “Bye Bye,” people kind of look around like, “He wrote that?”
Scene: How did you approach recording them? Were you trying to make your versions sound different than the originals?
PV: My live band recorded this album with me, so we set up in the studio like we were onstage, and we just kind of edged it up and had fun. Sometimes you have a hard time really capturing what you do live. So I thought having the band might be the ticket. We just have a chemistry.
Scene: It’s cool to hear you do those Jo Dee Messina hits, because they were such defining songs for her.
PV: Yeah, I remember when she cut “Bye Bye,” I thought, “I don’t know if I can hear a girl doing this.” (laughs) How smart am I? But they’re all such personal songs. “Bye Bye” was a divorce song, and “I’m Alright” was a song about one of my good friends. It’s really kind of hard to hear someone talking about your friend, or your breakup or your love. But I guess I can’t complain a bit about that! Because having that success as a writer really did get the attention of the labels. I was always a performer way before I was a songwriter. But I really wanted to get a deal, so I started working on my songwriting.
Scene: Were there any songs that you couldn’t bear to let any other artist record?
PV: Well, I didn’t know if I was going to have a solo career, and those songs getting cut really gave me some validity. Lonestar was in the studio getting ready to cut “Just Another Day in Paradise,” though. And I think we had to talk them out of that. (laughs)
Scene: There are three new songs on the album, and all of them, especially the single “Last Day of My Life,” seem very reflective. Is that a writing phase you were in?
PV: I do like to look back when I write songs. It’s like when you’re driving at night and you smell honeysuckle, and it reminds you of being on the lake. That’s kind of how songwriting is to me. You’re inspired by these little things. “Last Day of My Life” was a song that was kind of thrust upon me as I lost a friend of mine. And it just made me realize that any minute this could happen to anyone, and I’m going to take advantage of my time—and make love, not war. (laughs)