When Jimmy Buffett found his audience during the mid-Seventies, it was as a sandy-toed beach bum in Key West, Florida, with songs that glorified the happy hours and last calls of island life. Years before he hit the tropics, though, he spent time in Nashville as an unknown folksinger, recording dozens of demos in a studio several miles south of the city’s Music Row headquarters.
Released last month, Buried Treasure: Volume 1 rounds up those early recordings from his years in the Bible Belt. It’s an acoustic album, stocked with songs tracked in Mobile, Alabama — where engineer Travis Turk first began working with Buffett, setting up shop in a makeshift studio above a dentist’s office — and later in Nashville. Largely recorded in 1969, this material shows a different side of Buffett: one that owed less to the Caribbean and more to the unplugged folk music of the Vietnam era.
“This was still the time of flower power and hippie children,” says Turk, “so most of Jimmy’s songs had that flavor. He was influenced a lot by Gordon Lightfoot, too. Gordon was his idol, and he fashioned a lot of his playing and singing after that.”
Like thousands before him, Buffett found it difficult to make a dent in Nashville’s crowded market. He recorded more than 100 demos with Turk, along with two full-length albums. Nothing stuck. When a songwriting trip took him to Florida during the early Seventies, Buffett decided to stay down south, leaving behind the career he’d never managed to jumpstart back in Tennessee. Those Nashville-made albums — Down to Earth and High Cumberland Jubilee — quickly fell out of print, while the demos themselves went into storage boxes.
“I kept all of those songs — the demos, outtakes, everything,” Turk says proudly. “I’m something of a pack rat. I cut one of Kris Kristofferson’s first songs too, and I still have the demo of ‘Sunday Coming Down.’ As I moved along in my career, I just brought everything with me in these big cardboard boxes. One day, about 10 years ago, I had an idea to launch something like the Buried Treasure project. I mean, it’s the genesis of Jimmy Buffet — who wouldn’t want to hear that?”
Turk stumbled across more demos while cleaning out a storage closet in Buzz Cason’s recording studio. Cason had employed Turk for years, and his studio — the original Creative Workshop, housed in what is now Blackbird Studio — hosted most of Buffett’s sessions in town. When Cason sold the property to John and Martina McBride, Turk was asked to help clear out some old inventory. There, in the back of a storage closet, he found a box of 1/4-inch tapes from Buffett’s demo days.
Together, these nearly-forgotten folk songs and left-of-center country tunes help piece together Buffett’s brief history as a landlubber. The music is rough and raw, glued together by a dozen or so spoken-word interludes — all recently recorded by Buffett — that provide context for the songs themselves. Those looking for the smooth-sailing swoon of “Come Monday” are sure to come up empty-handed, but there are more them a few Parrothead-worthy gems here, with songs like “The Wino Has Something to Say” hinting at the humor that would become a Buffett mainstay in later years.
“Jimmy is a great writer and storyteller,” says Turk, who’ll be overseeing additional volumes of Buried Treasure during the coming months. “This is the origin point.”