By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Inger Klekacz and Aquarium Drunkard
As a child, Jimmy Buffett visited his grandparents often in their Pascagoula home on Baptiste Bayou. One day his sea captain grandfather pulled out a nautical chart and led his grandson to a pier. When he asked the lad where they were, Jimmy answered, “on a crab pier.” The old man pointed to the chart and told him to look again. Jimmy traced his finger down the bayou to the Mississippi Sound and into the Gulf of Mexico. At the bottom of the chart, his grandfather had penciled, “Start here.”
In “Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way,” author Ryan White writes that the only thing standing between the young Jimmy and the world would be a lack of imagination or an overabundance of caution. All he had to do was leap and the world would be his.
For White, whose first book was the critically acclaimed “Springsteen: Cover-to-Cover,” taking on a book project about the larger-than-life Buffett was also a leap of faith. He had the idea in 2010 shortly after his daughter was born, but it was three years later – after being laid off from his newspaper job at the Portland Oregonian and while standing on a beach listening to “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” – that he decided to make the book a reality. He already had an agent because of the Springsteen book and a kernel of an idea.
“I wondered what would happen if I could explore the Margaritaville landscape,” said White. “I imagined a travel narrative about this piece of culture that represents the American story.”
The book turned out much different, however, when many of Buffett’s friends and colleagues agreed to talk to White, who still lives in Portland.
“Their stories were more interesting than mine could ever be,” he said. “I wrote 30,000 words but threw them out because everyone else’s story was better than mine.”
With a cadre of Buffett’s friends and colleagues – including Coral Reefers Mac McAnally and Michael Utley – offering candid interviews, White was able to piece together stories that traced Buffett’s journey from Pascagoula and Mobile to Nashville and, of course, Key West. He says without Tom Corcoran – a novelist in his own right and a close Buffett friend – the book would not have been possible. He also got an extensive inside look at the Margaritaville empire through interviews with John Cohlan, CEO of Margaritaville Holdings and Buffett’s business partner for 20 years.
“John made it clear to me that I couldn’t separate Margaritaville from Jimmy Buffett. The book had to take on the shape of a biography even if I didn’t think of it that way,” explained White. “The book floats between genres, much like Buffett’s music. People are expecting one thing and get another.”
Stories include Buffett’s first trip to Key West with country singer and songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, his love-hate relationship with Nashville, and the formation of the Coral Reefer Band. Some of the most interesting passages describe the stories behind his songs, many of which die-hard Parrot Heads already know by heart.
White also addresses the Parrot Head phenomenon that began in 1989 when Atlanta musician Scott Nickerson ran an ad in an alternative newspaper inviting Buffett fans to form a club. It was former Coral Reefer Timothy B. Schmit who coined the name “Parrot Heads” when he compared them to Dead Heads as Grateful Dead fans were called.
Although White was unable to interview Buffett himself, he still captured the “mythical and mystical” history of the songwriter whose most famous hit song, “Margaritaville” was released 40 years ago this past February.
“I had always seen the book as a cultural history – a history that encompasses my lifetime,” said White, who is 43. His first trip to Key West as a preschooler was shortly after Buffett searched for that lost shaker of salt.
White always had his passport ready… just in case Buffett called and invited him to fly to St. Bart’s to talk. “It was a small fantasy,” he said with a laugh.
The author said one of the highlights of his research was being in Pascagoula in 2015 when the city dedicated the Jimmy Buffett Bridge that crosses Baptiste Bayou, which splashes against Buffett’s grandparents’ old backyard. After playing “The Captain and the Kid,” for the event, Buffett signed a nearby mural with “Start here,” just as his grandfather had written many years before. The musician acknowledged it was worth looking back sometimes. “Let’s just say, the odds were long,” Buffett said of his long career.