Those who best understand Phil Vassar - good-time, whirling-dervish-on-the-piano, hardest-working-man-in-country-music Phil Vassar - also understand the ongoing evolution of his mostly self-penned music. And Prayer Of A Common Man, his fourth studio album and first for Universal Records South, adds several more layers of artistic expression to his deepening repertoire.The Virginia-born singer, songwriter and musician took his seat as country's leading piano man with the success of songs like "Just Another Day In Paradise" and "Six-Pack Summer," and his penchant for pure musical escapism continues. Vassar's heart-swelling embrace of life's richest blessings is also apparent, especially on lead single "Love Is A Beautiful Thing." At the same time, his writing has grown more introspective and personal, as "This Is My Life" and the title track can attest.Like light through a prism, the hues of Vassar's muse are both seamless and distinct. And those shades are a direct reflection of the many forces at work in the life of a maturing recording artist."I can look back on songs I've written, kind of smile and remember what I was going through at the time," Vassar says. "But it's a different life for me now. Experience changes you and affects what comes out in your writing."As the cares of the world work on him, Vassar finds the pull of home growing stronger, which gave weight to the choice of "Love Is A Beautiful Thing" as his album's first single. "It reminds me of growing up back home in Virginia," he says. "It really paints a portrait of Americana. Every time I hear that second verse about giving away your daughter at her wedding it makes me tear up. In a way, the song reminds me of every family reunion or get-together we had in my family."Devotion to family is one of the reasons Vassar has become increasingly contemplative and emotional with his music. He considered his place in the world with "American Child," addressed hard questions of faith in "This Is God" and explored that which truly brings meaning in his most recent smash, last year's "Last Day Of My Life."As much as Vassar's muse has seen a logical expansion, he's the first to admit that recent events have pushed him to a tipping point. "Someone asked me the other day, 'What, are you angry or something?'" he explains. "I went, 'Hell yeah, I'm angry. Is it okay with you to be paying $3.95 for a gallon of gas? Is it okay that people send their kids off to school to get blown away?'"As a single, involved father of two - daughters Haley, 9 and Presley, 4 - Vassar feels those concerns acutely. "It's easy to be a happy-go-lucky guy when you're young," Vassar says. "Having kids raises your level of concern about just about everything."For instance, the tragedy at Virginia Tech, which hit home - quite literally - for the Lynchburg, Virginia native and James Madison University alum. "These are the kinds of things I'm concerned about," Vassar says. "Not getting drunk with my buddies. That's still fun...once in a while. But the world I'm raising my kids in is more important to me now." Vassar had the opportunity to take his increasingly pointed songwriting home in August 2007 when he was slated as one of four artists to headline the Concert for Virginia Tech (with Dave Matthews, John Mayer and Nas).He may be an acclaimed performer and chief executive of a successful business venture, but he's also the son of a factory worker from a small, Southern, lunch pail town. "I grew up poor," Vassar says. "Not middle class, we were just poor. You don't really know it or understand it when you're a kid. I never had a car. I didn't have one even college. I'd have never even gone to college if I couldn't run fast or jump high."The track scholarship to JMU gave Vassar a way out of a town where there were only two career options - both factories, and it was college where his musical passions first took serious hold. He moved to Nashville and banged out a living playing piano in local clubs while writing original music and pursuing an artist deal. His father's work-a-day ethos propelled him through the long-odds gauntlet Nashville poses for arriving aspirants."My dad worked at a GE plant, and even though I don't make minimum wage I still work my ass off," Vassar says. "Even today, I still have that work ethic where you feel like if you don't work hard you're not going to eat. That's something my dad instilled in me and my sisters. I'm not in that desperate place anymore where I'm wondering if I should buy gas or milk, but I can definitely relate to that guy."Hard work paid off for Vassar, first as a songwriter. He scored hits with Alan Jackson ("Right On The Money"), Tim McGraw ("For A Little While"), Jo Dee Messina ("Bye Bye," "I'm Alright") and BlackHawk ("Postmarked Birmingham"). His self-titled artist debut bowed in 2000 on Arista/Nashville, and the hits continued to pile up: "Carlene," "Rose Bouquet," "That's When I Love You," "In A Real Love" and more. He was named ASCAP's songwriter or writer/artist of the year multiple times.His early success as a writer led, last year, to one of the most unique hits packages to come out of Nashville in recent years. With only three studio albums under his belt, Vassar offered up Greatest Hits Vol. 1, which was split between hits he's had as an artist, as well as new recordings of the smash singles he'd written for others.The release closed a chapter for Vassar, with Prayer Of A Common Man opening another. "I loved Arista," he says. "When I first started out it was the renegade label, but with all the mergers it has been through there are a lot of artists over there now. I was always the guy who wrote his own songs and produced his own records so it was kind of, 'Well, he's okay. Let's worry about the other artists who need more help.'Vassar asked for and was granted his release, and quickly signed with Universal South. "I love everyone at over at Arista, but it was time to move on. Being an artist isn't easy, so you need a lot of focus from everyone around you, and I've got that now."Co-produced with Universal South President and noted producer Mark Wright (Gretchen Wilson, Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack), the new album may show Vassar's serious side, but he hasn't forgotten how to have fun. "My Chevrolet," "Why Don't Ya" and "Baby Rocks" rank among his best toe-tappers and are already getting warm receptions at his heralded live shows.Even on the love songs, Vassar shows his uncommon charm, wit and playfulness, be it "Around Here Somewhere," "Save Tonight For Me" or "It's Only Love." And he's not shy about taking strong emotions head on with "I Would" or on the stunningly raw "Let Me Love You Tonight."His songwriting is fueled by his hard-charging touring schedule. "People ask me why I still do so many shows, but you work your whole life just to get to the point where people want you to come play," he says. "Plus, I've gotten in a groove the last few years where I can write on the road, come back and go straight into the studio with the band and cut demos."I'm actually more creative on the road. You're tired and your defenses are kind of down. Some of the best songs I've written have come when I was so exhausted that it kind of cleared out my head."The ulterior motives in this grueling work pace are his children. "Now when I come home, I just want to be home," he says. "I want to immerse myself in that. If you can find a balance between those you love and work, you're doing pretty good."And so the concerns on Vassar's plate very much mirror those of his fans. "I'm just like everyone else," he says. "My payments are just a little bigger." His response, likewise, is what you'd expect of someone who prays the prayers of a common man: He'll laugh a little, dance a little, cry a little and, this time around, he's not afraid to speak up a little, too.At this point, music fans should expect nothing less.