PHIL VASSAR IS A RESOURCEFUL guy. In the days before he achieved a pocketful of No. 1 hits as a solo performer and songwriter for several country music stars, he was just a little fish in a big pond one of a countless number of performers searching for that big break in Nashville.

During the mid ’90s, while he was fine-tuning his now-critically acclaimed skills as a songwriter, Vassar did what numerous musicians dream of but few ever have the chance to accomplish.

“About six years ago I had the opportunity to open up my own restaurant and nightclub,” he recalled. “I had a friend and I used to play in his club years before. We talked about opening our own place for years, so we finally did it. We got a really good deal on a building. It had been a restaurant for a long time. … Downstairs had meeting rooms, and we decided to open up the club downstairs.”

The entrepreneurial venture not only allowed Vassar the opportunity to earn an honest buck while continuing to pursue his songwriting dreams, but it also provided him with another valuable reward.

“It was great because I couldn’t get fired job security. … I played every weekend,” he told POLLSTAR.

That was just one of the major stepping stones Vassar crossed on his way to earning a place among Music Row’s most respected songwriters, as well as becoming a successful commercial performer in his own right. Although his offstage career as a bar owner ended in 1999 when he sold his interest in the intimate Hard Days Nightclub, Vassar’s musical career has since taken off.

Prior to last year’s release of his self-titled debut on Arista/Nashville, Vassar already had a series of No. 1 hits under his belt as a songwriter. Alan Jackson’s “Right On The Money,” Tim McGraw’s “My Next 30 Years” and “For A Little While,” Collin Raye’s “Little Red Rodeo,” and Jo Dee Messina’s “I’m Alright” and “Bye Bye” were penned by Vassar. His efforts earned him ASCAP’s songwriter of the year honor and song of the year acclaim for “Bye Bye” in 1999.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Vassar’s music rise above others in the Nashville scene. It could be that his instrument of choice is the piano, which, by placing an emphasis on the ivories instead of the fret board, provides a pleasant departure from guitar-based compositions. Some may point to his lyrics and others may find a strong liking for his melodies.

Phil Vassar

“When I listened to the album, I had never met Phil. I had no clue who he was or where he was,” veteran artist manager Jim Morey remembered, “but I immediately said to the person who gave me the material, ‘I’ve got to find this guy.'”

Morey, whose clients include Neil Diamond, America, and Kenny Chesney, developed an immediate taste for Vassar’s music. As he explained, it was Vassar’s “intelligent country lyrics, very beautiful melodies (and) great performance.”

“The songs all have stories to them that everybody can relate to, whether it’s urban or rural America,” Morey said, calling the performer “the flagship of my Nashville office.”

Vassar pointed out that it took years of songwriting before he settled into his style. “I was trying to write songs like everyone else was writing sometimes you’re trying to follow trends and I realized I was doing the wrong thing. There were a lot of guys that could write songs like they were playing on the radio better than me,” he said.

“About the time I really started to figure it out, I finally said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to write songs about things like I want to write them.’ And it seems like that’s when things turned around for me.”

The success Vassar has achieved in his recording career is reflected in his live performances. Part of that is due to his weekly gigs at his former nightclub. “I think clubs are a great training ground,” he said. “I’ve kind of felt sorry for artists that didn’t have the opportunity to do that because you sure learn a lot about entertaining and situations that present themselves during a show.”

This year, especially the summer season, has been a busy one for Vassar. His latest tour has him visiting fairs and festivals across the country, with various support dates adding variety to his schedule.

“We’re building his base with the public because in addition to hearing him on the radio, they need to see him live,” Morey said. “He performed for several years in the club he owned in Nashville, so he doesn’t have to go out and learn how to perform. He is a great performer.”

Vassar attributed his success to his business team as well as one other person. “I think the most important thing I learned was that as much as people try to help you, nobody can help you more than you can,” he said. “You really have to go out there and push yourself and help yourself because ultimately it’s more important to you than anyone else.” Pull quote: “I was trying to write songs like everyone else was writing … and I realized I was doing the wrong thing.”