A stack of the Tuning Fork Magazine Phil Vandel was on the cover of in February 2015. Cover photo by Heather Kirchhoff
A successful artist has record sales, radio play and a big house with a hot tub, right? Success isn’t always measured in dollars and cents though and all of those things directly trace back to money. Phil Vandel is one of the more successful musicians in the area but many don’t know about him because he isn’t headlining shows in St. Joseph every month. His unique take on the music industry has carved him out a niche where he is extremely well known in certain circles without some of the normal markers of a successful music career.
His brand of radio-friendly country music hits right on the mark in the Midwest as he maintains a following performing both originals and covers. He can be found playing solo acoustic or for many larger shows he will break out his full lineup in The Phil Vandel Band for a louder and more dominating set. This is the incarnation you will likely see playing events like fairs and reserving his solo shows for bars and more intimate environments.
Vandel likely had all the traditional goals in mind when he started playing music at a young age; his songs blasting out of the radio, a big fat recording contract and of course millions of dollars. The way events fall into place has taken him in directions he never envisioned. He now has a long history of seizing opportunities when they arose, he would take chances by joining bands and traveling far from home to play shows in doing so. “Every decision you make changes your direction a little bit. Even if you are going straight down the road you are still being diverted slightly.” Vandel explains, “Next thing you know you realize you aren’t even on the same course anymore. All these little diversions are what makes the journey happen.”
It isn’t a commitment every musician is willing to make to spend this much time on the road. Vandel’s commitment created situations of great uncertainty where he was along for the ride just to see where the road would lead him. “I missed more birthdays and holidays than I ever care to think about, there are prisoners that have spent more holidays with their families than I have.” He says with a laugh. During this time he was a part of several bands, countless shows and wrote and recorded a massive songbook that is now largely forgotten.
Phil Vandel signs copies of the Tuning Fork magazine he was on the cover of for February 2015.
His extensive time on the road in his early days of playing music paved the way for the career he now calmly enjoys. He currently has no records to sell, no recording contract and doesn’t spend months out of each year touring anymore. Despite all of this he has made the proper connections and done all the right things to be able to play large shows in places like Texas and Las Vegas. Much of the clout he has gained comes from his tireless work to support military personnel, whether they be active or retired and especially his support of wounded warriors.
He wasn’t always the huge devotee of the military, as he is known now, it is something that he came to appreciate as he was playing music. “The first wounded warrior thing I did was just a gig.” He says, “I wasn’t a big supporter of the troops and I wasn’t a flag waving guy.” After American Airlines put Vandel in situations to play for these people he began to know them and understand them. He developed and incredible amount of respect for what they had done and changed much of the direction of his life to help them out of that respect. “I realized at that point I knew I need to not only give back but I needed make up for all my years of foolishness I hadn’t given back.” Vandel says, “I went all in at that point.”
Since that time his status has grown to where he is invited to play huge benefit shows to raise money for those who need it. He also has had several occasions where he has hopped a plain to play one song for returning soldiers. He and Matt Snook did this several times with their emotional original song “Welcome Home.” Vandel also gets involved in projects to play in front of a massive amount of people when opportunity knocks and because he has put in the time and treated good people right, that opportunity seems to knock a little more frequently for him.
Recently he was chosen to write and record an original song for movie “The Hornet’s Nest” that was a starkly honest look at what American soldiers go though using real footage. His song he recorded for the soundtrack, “Tears of War” can be found right alongside high-profile artists such as Stevie Nicks and Kid Rock. Another project found him re-recording the 1974 Johnny Cash classic “Ragged Old Flag” and updating it for a DVD release of the video through the Non-Commissioned Officers Organization. The purpose of the video was to celebrate the illustrious tradition and journey of the United States flag. Vandel is a go-to name on projects like this because he has been there when groups trying to do good have needed him.
He details the early days of raising money for wounded warriors when he would play backyards in Dallas and be ecstatic about raising $500 for the cause. Playing shows like this for free didn’t appeal to most artists but Vandel seized the opportunity to give back. He continued to support these organizations and donate his time. In October of 2014 he was part of an event that raised $1.7 million over a two-day period. He was a given to be involved because he was one of the guys playing in a back yard trying create any support he could so many years before. He continues to be humbled by what support he can provide through his music career for these great people. His heart is constantly with them and his support is unwavering. This is what has led Vandel to be such an unconventional success in the music business. “It was never intended to be what it is,” he says “nothing in this industry ever is.”