Jimmy Buffett: Sunshine Superman

One day, Jimmy Buffett noticed that country music fans looked a lot like his audience; now he's got a Number One album to show for it

Jimmy Buffett Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Jimmy Buffett can have just about anything he wants. He's sold more than 21 million albums; he owns a chain of nine Margaritaville cafes, with locations throughout the country, the Caribbean and in Mexico; the best-selling novels he's written have raked in millions. Over the years, Buffett has indulged his passions by flying his own seaplane (he used to spot parties from the air and touch down), cruising the Caribbean in his yachts; and even maintaining a telescopic observatory in his Florida home. But as I stand on Buffett's property on the East End of Long Island, I notice that the two things making Buffett smile at the moment cost a grand total of $29.97.

The first, he proudly shows me, is a small $16.99 Igloo cooler that he's been toting to the beach recently. ("Look," he says, "there's even a little spot on top of it where you can put a sandwich!") The second retails for around $12.98, but to Buffett it's priceless: License to Chill, his first Number One album in 34 years of recording. A country project featuring guests such as Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and Bill Withers, it shot to the top of the charts, selling 239,000 copies in its first week. "When I saw that on the CNN ticker,"he says, smiling, "I was like, 'Y'know, you just can't buy that stuff."'

Buffett sits behind a cluttered desk in his cabin office, one of a handful of houses on his seven-acre spread. He's been surfing for six days straight and has the stubble to show for it. Solidly built and dressed in a Duke's restaurant T-shirt, with sleek blue pants and waterproof slip-ons, Buffett is just like you'd expect Jimmy Buffett to be: warm and talkative. Adjacent to the desk is a workstation where on rainy days, such as today, he ties his own fishing flies. Follow the surfboard carpet through a tiny corridor, and you're standing in a simple studio. Outside, 100 yards towards the ocean, lies his large colonial-style house, where he lives three months of the year with his wife of 27 years, Jane, and his three children.

Though Buffett claims that prior to License to Chill he's "never had a Number One anything," that's not entirely true. In 2003, Buffett spent a total of 30 minutes in a studio recording his vocal for Jackson's happy-hour single "It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere," which became a Number One country hit. Buffett has always had a preternatural business sense, but he's quick to point out that License to Chill isn't just capitalizing on the success of that single. He has Nashville roots — he did time on Music Row in the early Seventies trying to sell his songs and he recorded two albums in Nashville in the Nineties. "This wasn't like 'Puff Daddy goes country' or a Santana 'go get everybody' project," he says. "I wasn't looking for a comeback — there's been a legitimate connection for a number of years between me and that town."

Buffett grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and after earning a journalism degree at the University of Southern Mississippi, he soon began performing with an acoustic guitar in clubs on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Plugging his songs in Nashville was so tough that one day he answered an ad for a job at Billboard magazine covering the gospel beat. "Trying to pitch your songs in Nashville was as close to a shit job as I'd ever had," he says, adding that it wasn't really a job, because he never made a penny. "It was the most humiliating thing. Awful. So Billboard was a godsend. All of a sudden I went from being thrown out of people's offices to people sending me free records. I mean, I had an expense account and a car!"

His music and his lifestyle, which he refers to as "island escapism," took him away from Nashville at age 25, but he's always kept a reporter's eye on country music. In the late Eighties, he noticed country artists such as Clint Black were covering his songs. He invited Black to open a stadium show. "It was the first time that I noticed that that audience was not very different from ours," Buffett says. In 1999, Buffett accepted an invitation to record his first duet with Alan Jackson on a remake of Buffett's trademark tune, "Margaritaville." "I went in, and I did it," says Buffett. "Then I got a [royalty] check." His eyes light up. "I didn't know Alan Jackson was selling four or five million records!"

Last year, "It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere" brought him to the Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, where he and Jackson won for Single Record of the Year. "I'd never been to an awards show," he says. "I just sat there and listened to the entire sound check. It struck me that here was the last of the performers — with a few exceptions in rock & roll — people that actually play their instruments while they're performing. I mean, Toby Keith had horn players and two black chicks singing in his band! I'm going, My God! This is mainstream country?"

The 16 songs on License to Chill were recorded in a lightning-fast five days in Buffett's studio in Key West, Florida. In addition to writing a few beach-inspired love songs such as "Coastal Confessions," Buffett chose the tunes that would appear on the album, including Guy Clark's "Boats to Build," the Grateful Dead's "Scarlet Begonias" and the Hank Williams singalong "Hey Good Lookin'." Buffett planned the sessions with textbook efficiency. (He says the only thing that pisses him off is people who show up late:" I don't want to wait on anybody, goddamnit!") And he and his producers have developed a system where all that is asked of Buffett in the studio is three vocal passes on each song, which are then "comped," or edited, into one ideal vocal track. Many of the country stars were surprised about the relaxed sessions. "The recording experience with Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band in Key West is a little looser than they were used to, and I wanted them to enjoy it," Buffett says." The studio is down on the dock, we have a bar, it's casual surroundings, and at night we go out. It's just — fun." He adds that the work-to-play ratio is pretty good. "Now, in the old days, we probably played a lot more than we worked."

It's been said that wherever Jimmy Buffett goes, a party follows. His overwhelming good-time vibe has made him an icon to his legion of Parrot Heads, who seem to live vicariously through his sun-soaked, beer-drenched tunes and exploits. Though he's still the consummate host, Buffett gave up the hard-partying lifestyle nearly 20 years ago while on the road. "Forty years old is what it was," says Buffett, who turned 57 on Christmas Day. "It happened when hangovers became equivalent to surgical recovery." His problems came to a head at a show in Denver. "I found myself in the horrible position of not giving my best onstage. And I felt very bad about that — the Catholic guilt welled up in me. I could have gone right down a predictable road, when you wake up and you're a has-been with nothing. But I woke up and said. 'You better straighten out, dumb-ass!' The thought of playing three shows a night at a Holiday Inn on Murfreesboro Road — that scared me. Worse than any Alien movie I ever saw." To this day, he plays every show totally straight. But does he kick back a few, and perhaps smoke the occasional joint? "You gotta have beach time, and I had my beach time this week."

This summer, Buffett has been taking it easy, and tying up loose ends. He fly-fishes off his kayak and he goes on morning surf trips, which he and his friends affectionately call "board meetings." He proudly shows me a photo of himself with big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, one of his heroes. Buffett, a respectable long boarder himself, looks forward to joining Hamilton on a big-wave adventure at Jaws, a sixty-foot surf break off the coast of Maui. He'll be watching, not surfing, and plans to eventually write about it for Sports Illustrated. "Can you imagine looking at a wave that big?" he asks. "I can't wait to hear what that sounds like."

But first things first. Buffett is wrapping up work on A Salty Piece of Land, his fifth novel. He'll play ten sporadic dates during the next few months and a few more in October to support John Kerry as part of the Vote for Change concerts in Florida. Not such a busy schedule for a guy with a top-selling album. "Normally, I'm under the radar," he says. "If I do get on the radar, it usually takes some near-death experience for me to make the papers." He's referring to crashing in Massachusetts' Nantucket Harbor, almost getting thrown out of a Miami Heat basketball game last year for razzing a referee or his plane being nearly shot down in Jamaica with Bono on board. "It's nice to make it on my art for a change. Not much changes your life these days, and if nothing else, this was a week of great phone calls and letters from friends. Everybody's getting a good kick out of this — that all of a sudden there I am on the top of the charts. Before they had laughed and said, 'We're over, it's all hip-hop and rap.' But suddenly I had one more shot."