The Party Line

He'd rather do ballards. But what the heck? For Jimmy Buffett and his fans, the glass is always at least half-full.

June 10, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

"I'm not a very good singer, and I'm a passable guitar player," says Jimmy Buffett in his disarmingly matter-of-fact fashion. "But I think that I write pretty well. That's my strongest suit, and I like that."

Indeed, Buffett has done quite a lot of writing in recent years. In addition to composing material for his new album, "Beach House on the Moon," the 52-year-old has written several books, the score for a musical ("Don't Stop the Carnival," with a book by Herman Wouk), and a screen adaptation of his novel, "Where Is Joe Merchant?"

But what he's best known for is touring. For more than two decades now, Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band have been the house band for America's favorite touring deck party. Playing to sellout crowds across the country (they're at the Nissan Pavilion tonight and Saturday), Buffett and band put on a show that's part sing-along, part beer blast and completely insane.

Amazingly, Buffett manages to pack the house year after year despite the fact that he's had only one bona-fide hit, the 1977 Top-10 single "Margaritaville." ("Cheeseburger in Paradise," released the following year, climbed only as high as No. 32 on the Billboard charts.)

But commercial success doesn't matter much to his fans, a party-hearty crew who call themselves "parrotheads." After all, the songs they love best -- naughtily funny numbers like "Why Don't We Get Drunk" -- aren't exactly suitable for radio play. What they like about a Buffett show is that his music gives them a chance to get loud and be silly, to act as if life really were nothing more than an ongoing beach party.

That's fine with Buffett. "I'm an entertainer," he says, over the phone from his home base in Florida. When he started out in the music business, Buffett enjoyed putting on a happy face. "I was the life of the party," he says. "I also had a very optimistic view of life. I was always a `glass-half-full' person, you know?

"So out of that came the humorous things, which probably caught more attention than the serious stuff. I mean, there's enough serious material in the world, so when people come to us, we have by default kind of evolved into an escapism mechanism. And that's OK, because I still truly have fun at my work."

But if you were to ask Buffett to name the songs he, personally, is most proud of, it wouldn't be things like "Trying To Reason with Hurricane Season" or "The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful."

"I've always preferred my ballads and my more serious songs," he says, then laughs. "If I was going out to do a show of the songs, from the whole Jimmy Buffett collection, that I really like, I don't think that we'd be selling out."

Still, there's plenty of serious stuff on "Beach House on the Moon." From the title tune, a wistful and whimsical look at the sort of legacy a father can leave his son, to the meditation on fate that is "Oysters and Pearls," the album shows Buffett at his finest -- a sly, insightful songwriter whose work ranks with the best of John Prine or Steve Goodman.

Buffett says that part of the reason the writing on the "Beach House" album is so sharp is because of what he learned working with Wouk on the musical "Don't Stop the Carnival," which was a box-office hit in Miami.

"Writing for character, and writing to advance plot, as opposed to just writing whatever came into your head, was a discipline that I had never written with before," he says. "So it kind of carried over into this record and affected a song like `Beach House on the Moon.' "

But there's another reason Buffett was eager to push the envelope with this album. "Beach House" is the final album owed under his contract with MCA/Universal -- although because of the label's merger with Polygram, the album was actually released through Island Records -- and Buffett decided he was going to have his own way while recording.

"People really never have been able to tell me what to do, because I've kinda carved my own thing out," he says. "But that doesn't mean they don't try. There's still the inevitable person who says, `Well, you can't.' Like, `You can't do a song over four minutes,' or `You've got to go make a radio song.' "

This time, Buffett opted not even to consider the record company naysayers. "So we just abandoned all those tired old cliches," he says. "We just decided to be unrestricted and say, `Well, I don't care if the song is six or seven minutes long. It's going to be what it's going to be.' "

A breeze

Between the attitude he brought and the people he worked with -- a crew that included producers Mac McAnally and Russ Kunkel, as well as guest musicians ranging from Cajun accordionist Marc Savoy to rhythm aces David Hood and Roger Hawkins -- Buffett breezed through the recording sessions. "We cut that record in nine days," he says proudly.

A few of the songs are by other songwriters, like Bruce Cockburn's "Pacing the Cage" and John D. Loudermilk's "You Call It Jogging." But in some ways, Buffett is as proud of those as he is of his own originals.

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