Jimmy Buffett, the enduring hippie-minstrel of the tropics, once recorded a song entitled “A Pirate Looks at 40.” Buffett is now a pirate looking at 50 he’ll cross the half-century mark on Christmas day but he’ll probably blow past it just as he’s blown past his competitors in the last decade.
“I’m as charged as I ever was about things,” Buffett said. “I think what’s fun about it is that you finally get respectability and credit for your ideas. And people are interested in pursuing them. It takes a while to get there, and I could have gotten frustrated along the way, but fortunately I had my summer gig to always fall back on. That’s why I still like to go and work the road because I know it’s the basis of everything.”
He’s brimming with plans, too. His new, acoustic-based album, “Banana Wind,” is his third disc of original songs in as many years; it debuts at No. 4 on this week’s Billboard album chart. He has a musical theater piece, “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” written with Herman Wouk and based on Wouk’s 1965 book, which will debut in Miami next spring and he hopes will make it to Broadway. And he’s making a Christmas album (due before his birthday) and then hopefully a live album drawn from a series of shows in Paris next year.
“I still take a journeymen’s approach to what I do,” said Buffett. “I have a job and I’m lucky to have it - and I treat it as such.”
He’s also the guru of the ongoing cult of “Parrotheads,” the zany, Hawaiian-shirted legions whose annual hedonism turns summer amphitheaters into funny farms. It’s a phenomenon that always has media pundits agog, but Buffett said it wasn’t by design.
“Believe me,” he said with a laugh, “I never intended it to become a religion or a cult following. But I’m lucky to have wonderful fans who have kept me going. Sometimes you want to say, ‘Hey, get a life.’ But if it works for them, fine. I’m not going to argue with it.”
Buffett’s muse was definitely working on new disc “Banana Wind,” which reaffirms his folkie, singer-songwriter roots. The Alabama native includes a trademark, escape-to-the-tropics song in “Holiday.” But amid the album’s humor is a poignant song about his father (who died last year) called “False Echoes,” on which James Taylor and his son, Ben, added vocal harmonies during a visit to Buffett’s Key West studio. “Oh, the life of a sailor steers a wanderin’ course,” Buffett sings.
Various Latin swing, pop, calypso and reggae flavors round out the album, which except for an electric mandolin, was made solely with acoustic instruments - a departure from some of the plugged-in rock of recent outings.
Buffett also found a new outlet for his satirical skills. He’ll always be hard-pressed to top previous belly-laughers like “Margaritaville,” “Fins” and “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude,” but the show-stopper here is “Jamaica Mistaica.” It’s the true-life story of an episode last winter in which Jamaican police shot at Buffett’s seaplane as it taxied into Negil, because they thought it was carrying drugs. In truth, he’d only come because he wanted to eat some chicken on the beach.
Sings Buffett: “We had only come for chicken, we were not a ganja plane/ You should have seen their faces when they finally realized we were not some coked-out cowboys sporting guns and alibis … We’re catching fire and there wasn’t even a spliff.”
“Like all things, it made for a good song,” Buffett said. “I know that there are times in my life where I probably should have been shot at for a lot worse behavior. But on this particular instance, I was innocent. Not even a spliff.”
His plane absorbed two bulletholes, which were patched up and then Buffett was on his way (and, yes, he did get to eat his chicken first). “Nobody was hurt, so I said, ‘Let’s just get on with it.’ Some people said, ‘God you could have sued them, you could have sued the government.’ But I went, ‘No, it’s probably karma. We’re even now.”’
To drive this point home, there’s a hidden, unannounced track on the new disc called “Treetop Flier,” a Stephen Stills song about - you guessed it - a drug smuggler who says, “Yes I’m a smuggler and I could get shot.”
Buffett is now preparing his summer tour and has a few tricks up his sleeve, as always, but he’s also looking to lessen the hijinks this time.
“We’ve had a vaudeville kind of approach to things,” he said. “But from crowd reaction and Internet reaction and from people talking to me about it, we kept hearing that they loved the show, but that we had done the (vaudeville) theme for a while. They said they really wanted to hear more music. So we took out some of the vaudeville stuff and we’re now up to 28 songs in the show. And other than those eight classics that we have to do, the 20 others are either new songs or songs that we haven’t done in three or four years. I really like this show.”