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Jimmy Buffett Charms

5 o’ clock somewhere—July 23

Another summer, another effort to explain the wonder of Jimmy Buffett to someone.

Its like trying to describe a mojito to an eskimo.

I’ve been writing about Buffett since 1982 when he opened for Bonnie Raitt at the Poplar Creek Music Theatre outside of Chicago. I have a picture of me and Buffett backstage. We both have big moustaches. It looks like we’re preparing to direct an adult movie.

I was immediately drawn to Buffett’s unique blend of country, calypso, reggae and folk. I love Merle Haggard and some of Buffett’s curled vocal inflection reminds me of the Hag. Merle Haggard meeting Harry Belafonte meeting Steve Goodman.

What’s not to like about that?

Call his musical style Gulf & Western or Caribbean Soul, but on Saturday I’ll be at Alpine Valley for what appears to be my 36th Buffett concert since 1981. (I’ve saved most of the ticket stubs). I’d catch him while you can. I spoke to Buffett a couple of months ago before I headed off to the tiny Caribbean island of Anguilla, one of his recent haunts. “I’ve been fishing around and looking like places like Anguilla where we can play,” Buffett said. “Its obvious people like to hear us in a smaller location and take a vacation at the same time…….”

“…..It started in Hawaii about five years ago when we did a show in a Honolulu park. A lot of people wrapped their vacation around the show and they didn’t have to go 30 miles out of town like most of the places we’re playing these days. You don’t have that drive.”

In early June Buffett made his performance debut in Paris, France (not Tennessee) at the 400-seat New Morning Club. He’s seriously thinking about a show amongst the tiki gods on Easter Island in the South Pacific.

“I’m trying to cut down to about 20 dates a year,” he said. “I’m doing the things I wanted to do the year I turned 60 in terms of lifestyle and music. As I throttle back I’m thinking more about teaching and getting involved with baseball, a fun hobby that might come back on my radar.” Buffett has been involved with minor league ball in Key West and Ft. Myers, Fla.

I spend a lot of time listening to Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown and John Prine. I love the new Garbage compilation. But my friends can’t figure out what it is with Buffett. They lose sight of Buffett’s musical acumen because of the surreal ritual of his live show: fins hats that block your view, men in coconut bras and grass skirts and heavy drinking.

This is mostly a Midwest deal and I don’t care for it either. I’ve seen Buffett at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Bayview Park in Miami and a Super Bowl XX party when the Bears were in New Orleans. None of that weird stuff went down at those shows.

Earlier this year I was at Amoeba Records in San Francisco when I picked up a Lefty Frizzell CD. The late Frizzell-a major influence on Haggard–recorded Buffett’s ballad “Railroad Lady.”

“Wow, I don’t even know how that song got to him,” Buffett said. “I think my publisher at the tiime, Buzz Cason, got it to Lefty. I was such a horrible song plugger. Lefty was the first one to do one of my songs. Then Waylon (Jennings) did ‘He Went To Paris’ Then Willie did ‘Railroad Lady.’ [Kenny Chesney is producing the upcoming Willie Nelson album that has a Buffett track on it.] . In all those years they’re the only people who covered my songs.

“But I heard the other day that at Jack Johnson’s Kokua (Hawaii Foundation) charity festival–which I was hoping to play, but was the same weekend we were working– he and Eddie Vedder did ‘A Pirate Looks at 40.”

Buffett maintains one of the best road bands in the business. Louisiana slide guitarist Sonny Landreth is on board, although he will miss the Alpine show because of the Crossroads Blues Festival in Chicago. Bill Payne of Little Feat is a Coral Reefer when he’s not involved with other projects, and I will never get enough of Trinidadian master steel drummer Robert Greenidge.

Percussionist Ralph McDonald played with Belafonte for 10 years while also writing the soul classics “Where Is The Love” and “Just The Two of Us” and keyboardist-bandleader Michael Utley is the mind behind the madness. Utley’s credenitals include a stint with Memphis legend Jim Dickinson and the Dixie Flyers and he was musical director for the critically acclaimed ‘Roy Orbison: Black and White Night.”

And don’t take a flyer on guitarist Lyman Corbett “Mac” McAnally, whose songwriting roots in Nashville run as deep as his 1970s studio work in Muscle Shoals, Ala..

Buffett, Utley and McAnally still subsribe to the Muscle Shoals style that shaped hits by Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, and even Bob Dylan, who recorded 1979’s “Slow Train Coming” at Muscle Shoals Sound: always frame the passion of the music around the singer.

See you Saturday…..and phins up!!