I’ve always assumed my fandom of any music artist would be for life. Sure, my engagement with their art might change over time but if I loved it once, I would always love it in some way. Some artists continue to engage me with new music while others are a refreshing sip of nostalgia. I’ve been deeply involved with three fan communities since I saw my first concert in 1985. One, obviously, is here with the Duranies. Any reader of my weekly column already knows that Cowboy Junkies is another. With 120+ concerts on the Cowboy Junkies odometer, it’s safe to say I’m in for life with them. Prior to the pandemic, however, there was one fan community that I had walked away from.
My first Jimmy Buffett concert was in 1990 and I was hooked; for life, I assumed. That particular show was a political benefit for a Democrat running for governor of Florida. To this day, I don’t know if Lawton Chiles won that election but I’ll always remember the black-tie crowd that made up the lower level of the theater and the clashing floral wave of the Parrotheads in the upper level. As we screamed “fins to the left” with our hands in the air, I felt at home with a bunch of drunken misfits. Florida has always been full of weirdos but these were the sort of weirdos that I wanted to be friends with. As a young high school student, the music of Jimmy Buffett opened up to me like a roadmap into a counter-culture that made sense. Until it didn’t.
While the finest run of music in the 1970s belongs to David Bowie as far as I can tell, the stretch of seven Buffett albums from 1973’s A White Sport Coat and A Pink Crustacean to 1979’s Volcano are the foundation of a new style of rock-n-roll that combined country, folk, blues and palm trees. Rock-n-roll has always been a hybrid of styles but Jimmy Buffett stumbled upon something unique when he headed south to Key West on A1A. Once “Margaritaville” became a hit single, Buffett was able to build a brand around his music and few artists have done so with more financial success.
In the late 80s, the albums started to sound a little phoned-in but there were always a few redeeming songs (see “Changing Channels” from 1989’s Off To See the Lizard). It was around then that this Florida kid started to discover his music, mostly through a battered Songs You Know By Heart cassette. After seeing Buffett in 1990, I frantically played catch-up on the older albums and patiently awaited the first “new” album as a fan. It didn’t disappoint. Buffett’s three album run in the 90s of Fruitcakes, Barometer Soup, and Banana Wind found him at his best in a new decade. Then 1999’s Beach House On the Moon arrived and I am still a little frustrated with it. It is the sort of album that takes advantage of a loyal fanbase who rarely criticize the artist. “You Call It Jogging” and “Math Suks” still suck but, at this point, it was more about the live concert experience and every Buffett show was a party.
Much like Duran Duran’s 80s brand of escapism, Jimmy Buffett always appealed to my wanderlust and 2002’s Far Side Of the World has some lovely tunes such as “Blue Guitar” and a few more of the “stop trying to be funny Dad” songs (“What If the Hokey Pokey is Really All It is About”). Then, in 2003, Alan Jackson released the best Jimmy Buffett-style song in years with “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” featuring Buffett himself. Amazingly, Kenny Chesney, who simply added a cowboy hat to the Buffett template, turned down the massive hit before it landed with Jackson. As a songwriter who was originally chased out of Nashville in the early 70s, this was sweet revenge for Buffett and he seized the opportunity.
The 2004 License To Chill album featured everyone from Jackson and Cheney to legends like George Strait and Clint Black. It took a few decades but Jimmy Buffett was the toast of Nashville. Great news for him as it breathed fresh life into his Margaritaville empire but a bit unsettling for us weirdos from the upper level. Buffett split the distance between the two on Take the Weather With You, one of his better post-imperial phase albums. The Crowded House cover (“Weather With You”) probably meant more to me than most Parrotheads and I remember how exciting it was to hear it live. It was soon after this album that I ended up working with the man himself in Hawaii.
My time working for Margaritaville was brief but I still have some wonderful memories and, as a fan, I was thrilled to find Jimmy exactly the man I imagined him to be. Always generous with his time, I’ll never forget chatting about the Dick Dale surf guitar he added to “Surfing In A Hurricane” on 2009’s Buffet Hotel or the time I loaned him one of my guitar picks for a TV segment in Hawaii. I moved on soon after but a few years later, I caught one of his guitar picks at a Las Vegas show so the circle was complete!
It was in Las Vegas when things started to sour for me as a fan. While I always knew that a large portion of the brand’s audience were using his concerts and restaurants as a form of escapism, I didn’t realize how far they had drifted away from the counter-culture ethos laid out in songs like “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes”. This wasn’t supposed to be a lifestyle, it was just life. The aging audience was starting to splinter along political lines and the fan message boards were turning dark. After a Vegas concert where I was constantly berated for being on my feet dancing, I knew it was time to move on as a Parrothead. After that, hearing his music made me more frustrated than nostalgic.
Then the pandemic happened and there were no concerts. There was time to reflect. And you know what, it wasn’t me who changed and it wasn’t Jimmy Buffett who changed. It was too many of the other fans. Undoubtedly, the influx of the conservative mainstream country fans who knew the Alan Jackson hit single didn’t help matters but the constant outcry from a decent sized portion of his fan base whenever he supported a Democrat or tried to help the environment had driven me away. It wasn’t his music. In fact, 2020’s Life On the Flip Side turned out great!
When the next Jimmy Buffett show rolls through town, I’m going back to the musical beach to reclaim my seat in the sand. Fuck it. When I saw him in 1990, he was supporting a progressive agenda and smoking pot. The popular songs sound as good as they always have and his taste in cover songs has always been fantastic. We missed over a year of live music due to a pandemic and I’m not giving up on being a fan because other fans turned into the exact opposite of what the music represents.
In the clip below, Buffett reflects on my favorite song he ever wrote and then plays it for us. Apparently, the time I heard it live in Tallahassee, FL in the early 90s was one of only TEN times he has played it over the thousands of shows he has done. That alone is reason for me to not back down as a fan and keep going to shows. I wouldn’t want to miss a favorite artist when they play that rare cut that means the world to me. Just don’t expect me to sit down.