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Introducing Country Legend Jimmy Buffett

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Jimmy Buffett Pop or Country, He's a Surf and Sun Star

Florida Times Union

Let's get this straight. Jimmy Buffett didn't used to be country. He was off somewhere in rock or pop, strumming his six-string, on his front porch swing. But that swing, the beach, the palm trees . . . the whole darn island, has somehow landed squarely in country, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Maybe the move to country started in 2003, when Buffett showed up in Alan Jackson's "5 O'clock Somewhere" video, a song that you knew was Buffett even before he appeared in that tiki bar. And then last year, Buffett's 'License to Chill' featured a slew of country artists, including Kenny Chesney, Martina McBride, Toby Keith and Jackson. It was the first No. 1 album in Buffett's career, debuting at the top of both the country and pop charts.

But the truth is Buffett has always had more than a bit of country in his music, even back when he was stealing peanut butter from the mini-mart and using his old red bike to get to the bars and beaches of his town. He's always had a bit of country twang to his voice. He is, after all, from Mobile, Ala. And there's more than a bit of country simplicity to the structure of his songs.

Buffett actually got his start in Nashville in the 1960s. But that didn't work out, so he ended up in Key West, trying to reason with hurricane season. He found his voice there, giving credibility to those of us Floridians who grew up on A1A and some hope to those jealous inlanders who didn't.

Key West isn't his town anymore; Palm Beach is. And a Learjet has long since replaced that old red bike. But the loyalty of Buffett's Parrotheads has remained unflinching. His albums sell well, his shows sell out, and he is one of only six authors to reach No. 1 on the New York Times fiction and non-fiction lists.

And, now, he's a country star.

Elizabeth Teague, charter member of Northeast Florida's Beaches A1A Parrothead Club, doesn't think there's been any big change in his music. His first albums, 'High Cumberland Jubilee' and 'Down to Earth,' had a good bit of country to them. Other songs over the years have been heavily country.

"If you sit down and listen to any number of albums," Teague said, "you hear different styles of music. 'Far Side of the World' had world beat in the title song. He had zydeco in there."

"He's still making the music he's always made," said Chris Parr, vice president for music and talent at Country Music Television. "I don't think he's made any real adjustment, other than this project. If you've got Martina McBride singing on a track, it's obviously going to sound more country."

More than Buffett discovering, or rediscovering country, it seems simply that country has found the beach. Kicking back on a chair in the sand, drink in hand, is now a country thing. And Buffett so defined that genre, that image, that if virtually anyone is singing about sun, sand, water or drinking, a comparison is made to Buffett, the patron saint of sun, sand, water and drink.

Teague traces it back to Garth Brooks' 'Two Pina Coladas' in 1997. Do a database search of U.S. newspapers for "Jimmy Buffett" and you'll find a ton of reviews of Chesney's latest CD, 'Be As You Are.' Because no one reviews Chesney without a Buffett reference. (Often, it's a Buffett-lite reference.) Listen to Blake Shelton's Some Beach, and there's Buffett.

But it's also a matter of country simply expanding its boundaries while rock is narrowing its own. If the Eagles came out today with Peaceful Easy Feeling, they'd be on CMT, not MTV. Same with the Byrds, and maybe Creedence Clearwater Revival.

CMT now has a series called Crossroads, which mixes rock and country acts for an hour-long concert. They share the stage and perform each other's songs. Chesney was paired with John Mellencamp, Kid Rock with Hank Williams Jr., Martina McBride with Pat Benatar.

Parr actually put it as simply as being able to sing along with the song.

"If you're looking for good rock and roll," he said, "there's no Bob Seger out there. They can't sing along."

Country music had a boom in the early '90s, when Brooks was at his peak. It's not a coincidence, Parr said, that Seattle grunge was dominating rock at the time.

A few years later, Hootie and Blowfish showed up, sold millions of records, and country wasn't so hot. Now, hip-hop dominates much of pop and rock, and country is surging again: Album sales are up, radio ratings are the highest since 2000 and concerts are doing well, too.

And Jimmy Buffett, Hawaiian shirt and a deep water tan, is right there.

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I like Jimmy Buffett on more than one level. We spent a drunken night in Charleston in 1981, and we had dinner with my grandfather at Seaman's Cove in Moss Point in 1994. He's made a boatload of money working the record and promotion industry, but his performing life has by and large been as a minstrel pleasing small crowds for little more than change in the bottom of a guitar case.

Parrotheads have always had crossover interest. In fact, to them there is no transition: beach music has always had a definitive country flavor. Small wonder that Jimmy's appeal has been embraced in Nashville.

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I like Jimmy Buffett on more than one level. We spent a drunken night in Charleston in 1981, and we had dinner with my grandfather at Seaman's Cove in Moss Point in 1994. He's made a boatload of money working the record and promotion industry, but his performing life has by and large been as a minstrel pleasing small crowds for little more than change in the bottom of a guitar case.

Parrotheads have always had crossover interest. In fact, to them there is no transition: beach music has always had a definitive country flavor. Small wonder that Jimmy's appeal has been embraced in Nashville.

He made a boatload of money by letting his cousin, Warren Buffett, do his investing for him. He seems like a cool guy.

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