Phil Vandel came from a line of military service men and had dreams of going into the Marine Corps and playing guitar with the Marine Corps Jazz Band, but a major surgery in his early teens meant he couldn’t pass the physical.
“Both of my grandfathers were WWII veterans,” said Vandel. “My dad was a Vietnam Era military person. All of my uncles were in Vietnam. I knew that was something I wanted to do. However, I also knew I wanted to play guitar, and the Marine Corp Jazz Band was going to allow me to do everything I wanted to do.”
Found his calling
Although Vandel couldn’t serve as a serviceman, he has been able to serve his country by supporting and entertaining troops all over the world, starting with a show for wounded veterans in Dallas, Texas.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Vandel. “It was just another gig to me. It truly was. I showed up there to do the show, and I left there forever changed. I’ve never been around more positive people who were burned up, missing arms and legs and had gone through Hell on Earth, yet can sit there and say that they would do it again. To see that kind of selfless sacrifice, and commitment to this country was so inspiring. At this moment I said, ‘This! This right here is what God had planned for me.’”
Since then, he has performed hundreds of shows for servicemen and veterans across the world, including Iraq. For one particular tour, Vandel said he told the Pentagon he wanted to go where nobody else would go. Vandel, his band and crew would set out each day in two Black Hawk helicopters and toured bases around Iraq, but one base in particular he will always remember as one of the proudest moments of his career.
“One guy came running up to us and said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing here?’” said Vandel. “I said, ‘We’re here to do a show.’ He said, ‘You don’t understand. There’s only 12 American soldiers on this base. We’re here training an Iraqi army.’ There was about 400 Iraqis and 12 American soldiers. We sat there for a second and I said, ‘So, you’re telling me there are 12 here though, right?’ and he said, ‘Yeah. Right.’ I said, ‘we’re here to do a show.’ We ended up doing a show in the dirt, next to the burn pit for 12 American soldiers and 400 Iraqis.”
“We proved to them that we weren’t there for any type of fame or recognition,” added Vandel. “We were there because we genuinely wanted to give back and try to distract them from the unfortunate reality that was all around them everyday and I felt like we accomplished that. Honestly, there’s been so many. That was the first trip over there where I saw the impact that we had on those 12 individuals.”
Vandel, who was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, said he was raised around music. His grandfather played guitar, fiddle, madolin and banjo and taught him how to play.
“Honest to God, when I was two-years-old, my grandma made me a little Elvis jumpsuit,” said Vandel. “I started out at 2-years-old with a yard stick, strumming it with my thumb and pretending it was a guitar, and I would go around singing, playing and carrying on. She made this little Elvis jumpsuit and found this white Elvis guitar, and I was Elvis! The next thing you know she came up with this whole cowboy outfit and a fiddle and I learned how to sing “Rocky Top.” That was the first song I learned how to sing. I think I was 2- or 3-years-old. From that point I loved it. I loved everything about music, and being around my grandparents all the time, I was always around it.”
It was around the time Vandel was in his early teens that he said he really embraced music and credits it for saving his life.
“Ultimately, what made me do it was my best friend was killed.” said Vandel. “It was an accidental shooting. The gun jammed, somebody wasn’t pointing it in a safe direction, and it dislodged, shot him in the heart and killed him. I was devastated by that. It was life changing for me. I was in such a horrible depression, and that guitar saved me. It was my outlet. It was my drug, if you will. It was healing for me. When I was 18, I found myself on the road for the first time, and I’ve pretty much been on the road ever since.”
The other Phil Vandel
Vandel’s father was killed when he was a small child. His name was also Phil Vandel, which Vandel said was a little terrifying when he met with a man named Phil Vandel during a gig he played in Darlington, Missouri when he was 14-years-old.
“There was a gentleman from Creston named Phil Vandel,” said Vandel. “His middle name was Gordon, and me and my dad were both Issac. I did a show when I was probably 14-years-old in Darlington, Missouri, and I’m on stage performing and the guy that was running the show said, ‘We’ve got a real special treat tonight because there’s actually another Phil Vandel here.’ He had seen in the paper that Phil Vandel was going to be in Darlington, Missouri that night, and he showed up to perform thinking that he booked it and forgot about it. Long story short, I got to meet him, and it was a real terrifying moment because I thought everyone had lied to me and maybe my dad had just run off or something.”
Opry Show and Dance
Vandel will perform from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Corning Opera House, 800 Davis Ave., as part of Opry Show and Dance series. Tickets are available through the Opera House for $8 per person. Contact 641-418-8037 or visit coringoperahouse.com for more information.