Thirty-three years after he traveled from New Orleans to Nashville to kick-start his career, Jimmy Buffett finally has a Number One country record: a duet with Alan Jackson, "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere." "I love Ry Cooder's opening line in Buena Vista Social Club: 'You never know what the public's going to go for,' " says Buffett, 56, with a laugh. "I've never had a Number One anything, and I was trying to keep my track record clean. Then this thing came along." Buffett can afford to joke about his chart success: Nine of his albums have gone platinum, and his eight Margaritaville restaurants rake it in. Buffett is also pals with Bill Clinton (he has played two birthday parties for the ex-prez), and he keeps boats in Florida and the Caribbean. Buffett also gives back, donating a portion of proceeds from his current tour to local charities. "There's this great French saying: 'Noblesse oblige,' " says Buffett, chatting before a bike ride in New Orleans with his youngest daughter. "Which means, if you're lucky enough to have a good life, at least give some of it back."
What was playing around the house when you were a kid?
I'm so old. Before the 45s came along, you just listened to what your parents had — so Frank Sinatra, and my mother listened to a lot of big-band stuff and Dixieland.
What was the first record you ever bought?
Elvis. I think it might have been Loving You. At a store on Dawson in Mobile, Alabama. I can still see the album cover: Elvis was playing a Martin, and he had on a purple shirt. I still have a purple shirt, the one I referred to as my Elvis shirt.
You learned guitar to pick up chicks, right?
How'd that go?
It definitely worked. I was seventeen, Catholic-raised and out on the streets of New Orleans for the first time, working in a folk club.
Was it hard playing live at first?
Awful. I remember being a reporter for Billboard, and I used to do concert reviews. I never wrote a bad review, because I was also performing and I knew what it took just to walk up there and get in front of an audience and basically humiliate yourself. But I went back. Even though I was ridiculed and they threw stuff at me, I kept going back.
What makes Parrotheads cooler than Deadheads?
I don't know if they're cooler.... What I love is the Parrot/Deadheads. I've been fooling around with "Scarlet Begonias," and I think I might play it, because I'm a Deadhead. Before Jerry died, there was a weekend where we were at an outdoor venue in North Carolina. I think the Dead had played Thursday and Friday, and we played Saturday and Sunday. We did an afternoon show on Sunday, and I'll never forget looking out into the crowd. I could tell exactly who had been to all four shows. There was a certain french-fried look about them.
Do your kids help you keep in touch with new music?
My kids have grown up on everything from Al Green to Eminem. I like it when there's something that my nine-year-old, my eleven-year-old, my twenty-four-year-old and I like. I took them to see John Mayer, and everybody was digging it. We also like Norah Jones. The biggest thing that we all love is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I think it's the best music and food festival in the world.
Do you have an insane sound system on your boats?
Actually, it's not that big a thing. I basically get low-end sound systems, and when the salt water gets to them, I get rid of them and get another one. They make all these super-waterproof systems — well, they're not. The iPod is the latest addition to my gear. My daughter turned me on to it. I'm a big believer in that stuff — iMusic and iTunes. Mailboat Records is one of the first independent labels to put music on iMusic. I'd rather get a dollar once than nothing at all.
So you run the iPod through all your stereos?
I do. I take my iPod into my car; I got one of those little plug-in things. It's just such a cool, practical idea. Everyone is talking about what the music industry is supposed to look like, and I like that vision very much.
Can you play "Margaritaville" for the rest of your life?
If I have to. It paid the rent. I'm glad that at this stage there are a couple of songs in my repertoire that have been around that long. Will I play it tonight before I go to bed? No. Will I play it next Tuesday night? Yes.