Before he founded a tropical utopia called Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett grew deep roots along the Gulf Coast. He was born in Pascagoula and spent a majority of his youth living in Mobile. Although he now calls New York and the Caribbean home, his time on the Gulf Coast has become the stuff of local legend.
Many Mobilians recall going to class with him at McGill-Toolen, and there is even a rumor one of the school’s rafters still bears his scrawled name. Some like to claim the burger at Dew Drop Inn was the impetus for “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Others tell stories of watching Buffett as a struggling performer enduring the indifference of the local music scene.
Eventually, he made his way to Nashville then Key West, where he fathered a genre now known as “Trop Rock.” Buffett is one of the Azalea City’s most beloved sons. Now a successful singer-songwriter known worldwide, as well as an author, activist and media mogul, Buffett began his steady rise to popularity 40 years ago with the release of his debut album “A1A.”
Since, an ever-expanding crowd of Parrothead disciples has been bathing in the warm, carefree waters of Margaritaville. On Friday, April 24, Buffett will return to the Gulf Coast to perform from his seemingly endless list of Trop Rock favorites in front of a sold-out crowd at The Wharf. Judging by the fact the show sold out in just minutes, Buffett has a devoted legion of fans right here at home.
Buffett took time out of his schedule recently to discuss with Lagniappe the past, present and future of the Trop Rock phenomenon he created.
SC: Your debut album “A1A” is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Back then when you were making that album, did you ever think it would bring you where you are now?
JB: No (laughing)! All things in perspective, back when I made “A1A,” I was very happy to be exactly where I was. It was a long way ahead of where I started, and a lot of people who I knew wished they were there at that time. From that point forward, luck, hard work, a little bit of talent, finding that audience and managing to keep them, so they would raise their children on this music has kind of worked out. So, I was happy to be there.
I can’t believe it’s been 40 years since “A1A.” I can remember driving down the road with my friend Peter Whorf, who took album covers from Miami. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were like, “What are we going to call this thing? Well, let’s take a ride in this MGB and go to Key West, and we’ll figure it out by then.” That’s how it happened. So, it was just as much fun then as it is now.
SC: You said something about people raising their children on the music from “A1A.” What do you think about the music from that album being so timeless?
JB: Well, I’m glad that I was lucky enough to be able to write timeless music. Most people don’t get that opportunity. They might do a song or two. You know, you never know what’s going to happen out there. You never know what the public is going to buy and how long they’re going to be around for. I was always having a good time doing it. I tried to be as authentic as I could about what I was doing. I think that kind of resonated with people, in a craft that’s noted for a lot of hype and a lot of bullshit. Then, the other thing was that I did kind of head south, which is part of my heritage. I was living in the tropics, because I wanted to. Even at this point, I’d be willing to bet that there aren’t a lot of people who wouldn’t go to the beach for a week, particularly after this winter.
SC: What kind of role did the Gulf Coast play in writing those early songs? Did you get that tropical vibe while you were here?
JB: No, I got all that from my grandfather. He was a ship captain, and his ship ran from New Orleans to Punta Arenas and Paraguay and Argentina. He brought back music. That’s the first Calypso that I ever heard was his record collection, because he liked that stuff. It started with him. I think the wanderlust was the fact that we came from a family of sailors and nomads, who had to settle in Pascagoula for odd reasons. That wanderlust was always there. The part the Gulf Coast played in me didn’t come until I was in college. I kind of wanted to sing and do it for a living. It was the end of the folk era and the beginning of the folk rock area. There were places in Biloxi and New Orleans that catered to that, and that’s where I wound up.
SC: To me, you’ve invented a musical genre. You invented Trop Rock, and it’s a big scene now. How does it feel to have invented a musical genre?
JB: Aw, I don’t think about that stuff! I guess imitation is the best form of flattery. If you would’ve told me at that time that country music was going to the beach, I would’ve said, “no.” The only country music that you got at the beach in those days was on the jukebox at The Hangout, and I’m not talking about the one today. I’m talking about the old one. It astounds me. I had the people that I listened to and respected and tried to write like. I’ve found that it’s kind of an honor. I feel honored. I’ve met some cool younger guys and younger girls, who have come along the way, who I have inspired. I know who my inspirations where, and I’m glad that I could do it.
SC: Parrotheads are some of the most zealous fans out there. I put them before Deadheads, Phishheads, Spreadheads and any other “heads” out there. Who is the most hardcore Parrothead that you’ve ever run into?
JB: Well, it’s kind of funny. I can only say that we’re at the end of a phase of this show that we’re doing down in Key West, where we let people create set lists and ran a contest for it. 68,000 people wrote set lists. So, it was astounding. We’re playing in a venue that holds 200 people in Key West, then we were going to put it up on Margaritaville TV. We’re playing with the whole idea of making bigger shows out of little shows. The thing of it is that when that many people took time to take 100 songs and write their 27 favorites hoping that they would be in the set list that we did. That humbles you a bit that there are people out there, who would think that much of it. To me, anybody who would do that is a great and loyal fan.
That said, there’s some pretty crazy things that you see out there. I’m just happy that people do it. The parking lots and the tailgates at shows over the past 40 years since the Parrothead phenomenon started, it’s kind of amazing. I think that there’s a lot more to it than just being a Parrothead and dressing up. Going back to how the Gulf Coast has affected me, being a child of the Mardi Gras had an effect on how I would do these shows. I was tickled to death when people started dressing up. I didn’t ask them to, and I didn’t come up with the idea or encourage it. They did all that themselves in very small places 30 years ago. Mainly in very cold climates, people would go out and buy Hawaiian shirts when we would come to town. It happened innocently and for the right reasons, as far as I’m concerned.
SC: You’ve got some European dates coming up. What do they think about your show? Are the Parrotheads just as hardcore over there?
JB: Yes, they are. It’s a great mixture, because we have a lot of people from the States who come over. Then, we get a lot of people from there who come to Paris for those shows. It’s not as large a flock, but they’re just as dedicated. When they descend upon Paris, it’s very amusing to watch Parisians react to it.
SC: To me, you’re a modern Renaissance man. You’re a musician, a writer and an environmental activist. What kind of side projects are you working on these days?
JB: Right now, Margaritaville TV is a thing that we’ve been working on. We’ve been running it for a year. We’re trying to create it as an extension for people who like Margaritaville Radio. The great thing is that after running it for a year and streaming all the shows, we’ve got about 130,000 people who are members. A vast majority of those people can’t get to a show, so they’re happy that we do it. A lot of other ones can’t wait until we get to town, so they can see a show before they go to one. Again, it’s the extension of a huge appreciation that I have for a fan base that’s so loyal. It goes back to the shamelessness of Mardi Gras, and we carried it out there a little bit. It’s fun. In a world that’s as crazy as it is these days, fun seems to be something that people need. They used to want to do it, and now, they have to do it. It’s just such an odd world that we’re living in day-to-day. You have to be able to laugh at something. If humor goes out of life, I think we’re in trouble.
SC: Last time you hit the Alabama Gulf Coast, it was a pretty major show with a ton of special guests. What do you have in store for the locals April 24?
JB: You know, we had a great one with the “This One’s for You Tour.” There’s a lot of work and time and effort that goes into these tours, and this is going to be an extension of last year’s summer tour season. I’m happy to come back if there’s a venue on the Gulf Coast that works into our touring plans, and I’m looking forward to playing it. My sister (Lucy Buffett) told me about it, originally. Again, it’s another one of those where it’s just like asking me if I ever believed that I would be where I’m at now, and I say, “No.” If you asked me if I’ve ever thought that I would be playing at a venue in Orange Beach, I would’ve said, “No.” (Laughing).
SC: Yeah, now, they have major music festival right in front of The Hangout.
JB: Yeah, I think that I know where they got the idea for that, though. (Laughing)