Buffett is at home in country

New on CD

July 29, 2004|By Howard Cohen | Howard Cohen,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

It's been no secret among Parrotheads that Jimmy Buffett's last batch of albums -- Banana Wind, Beach House on the Moon, Far Side of the World -- have been well-crafted but interchangeable and, ultimately, forgettable. The less devoted would say that complaint could stretch as far back as any of his post-Coconut Telegraph (1981) recordings.

It also hasn't gone unnoticed that Buffett has had a profound influence on today's country stars, some of whom (especially Kenny Chesney) slavishly copy the chief Parrot's sound and look. Radio, long a holdout, even came to the party last year when the pop veteran teamed with Alan Jackson for the rousing single "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere." The hit won Buffett his first music industry award and his first No. 1 single (albeit, on the country chart).

Someone as shrewd as Buffett couldn't let an opportunity sail by to reach beyond his Parrothead fans. As he sings on his harmonious cover of Guy Clark's "Boats to Build" from his new CD, License to Chill: "It's time for a change/I'm tired of that same old same/The same old words/The same old lines/The same old tricks and the same old rhymes."

So, backstage at the Country Music Association Awards last year, he chatted up Jackson, Toby Keith, George Strait, Martina McBride, Clint Black and Chesney and suggested that they head to his Key West studio to record with him.

The result is the wholly engaging License to Chill, Buffett's most appealing CD in who knows how long and as solid a country record as the mainstream market is likely to churn out this year.

The CD was preceded by the single, "Hey Good Lookin'," a Hank Williams remake done "Margaritaville"-style that amounts to stunt casting since Black, Chesney, Jackson, Keith and Strait all swap lines with Buffett. It's fine to pique interest in the project, but what will endure are the richer songs like "Boats to Build," sung with Jackson, or the island-spiced "Sea of Heartbreak" with Strait.

Buffett's solo turns -- "Coast of Carolina," the amusingly witty "Simply Complicated" (cowritten with R&B singer Bill Withers, who turns up vocally on "Playin' the Loser Again"), "Coastal Confessions," John Hiatt's "Window on the World" and Jerry Garcia's "Scarlet Begonias" -- are equally strong.

Buffett singing country is no stretch, of course. Beyond his influence on current acts, he got his start on Music Row -- even though his first album, Down to Earth, reportedly sold a whopping 300 copies in the late '60s.

"Am I country, pop or rock 'n' roll?" Buffett sings on this return-to-roots CD. "I know they are related/So I'll just let you be the judge/It's simply complicated."

Nothing complicated about enjoying this disc. How about a Volume II?

Jimmy Buffett

License to Chill (Mailboat Records/RCA) ***1/2

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