No musician could ever make being a newly divorced, alcoholic, beach bum sound as much fun as Jimmy Buffett has. There’s more to him than “Margaritaville.” In fact his best work (which doesn’t sound too different than his worst work) is like James Taylor if Taylor spent time in Key West instead of a mental hospital.
Out of curiosity and sheer boredom, I recently downloaded Buffett’s first few albums. Everyone in the world has his biggest hits, but I wanted to investigate what he sounded like before the patron saint of frat boys shtick took hold. Now, before we go any further I should point out that I have a longer history with ol’ Jimmy than most. I come from a line of parrot heads and Jimmy Buffett has always come on my family vacations. Whether his music was playing over the blender or “Cheeseburger in Paradise” was blaring out of boat speakers, I think I probably know more songs than most college kids.
His first few albums are different than “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” even if you can hear the template he’s laying out for songs like that. Although it has some seriously bland parts, Down To Earth, Buffett’s first album also features some legit folk songs. “A Mile High in Denver” is one of his best early songs.
After Down To Earth came A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, Living and Dying in ¾ Time, and A-1-A. White Sport Coat is country music, but not like the kind coming out of Nashville in the day. Where Buffett was showing his mischevious side with “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” and “The Great Filling Station Holdup,” Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard were at their most dramatic and topping the charts.
In those albums, though, Buffett reveals an underside to his big grin and carefree attitude. Divorced from his first wife in 1972, he sings about being hit with fame and the loneliness of the single life at the same time. I like to picture that Jimmy Buffett has a dark side, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a story came to light about him trashing a dressing room. Can you imagine how you’d feel if you had to sing “Margaritaville” every night for the rest of your life? There’s probably nobody that hates that song more than Jimmy Buffett himself.
In “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” Buffett gives us a window into that darkness. For such a nautical title, the song is surprisingly personal. He sings about being drunk too often, chasing younger women, and being “…down to rock bottom again.” Buffett’s parrot head followers are practically enablers!
For every sad song there’s 20 that are perfect for Friday nights. “The Wino and I Know” is evidence that even if Buffett isn’t always deep, he knows how to write a phenomenal party song. Here’s the thing, even if his catalog is repetitive it’s hard to not admire Buffett’s business sense. I’m not referring to his Margaritaville restaraunt chain or film productions. Instead, I mean that from early on in his career Jimmy Buffett was smart enough to appeal to older listeners. We live in a youth driven culture and new artists almost always shoot for the attention of the high school/college demographic. Not Buffett, his divorce gave him an outlook that only thirtysomethings and older could relate to.
He also sings about beaches and boats, like a lot. Students not living along coastlines can’t relate to Buffett’s lyrics, but adults with an expendable income can visit those beaches and know just what Jimmy means when he sings about a coconut telegraph. Where college house parties use Mac Miller as a soundtrack, the parents (who have the money to pay those tuitions) are listening to “Fruitcakes.”
He sometimes gets a bad rap, but Buffett’s early albums are full of breezy strumming songs with clever lyrics. They also seem to be the point where Buffett hit his groove, even if he never figured out a way out of it. Now it’s up to us to enjoy his never ending mid life crisis. Just make sure it’s louder than the blender.