By Curt Alliaume
First off, I should note that I’m not a Parrothead. Never attended a Jimmy Buffett concert, to my regret.
But it was almost impossible not to like Jimmy Buffett. It’s not as if every song he wrote and performed was happy, let’s-get-drunk-and-relax like “Margaritaville” (which is about losing a female partner). Songs like “A Pirate Looks at 40” and “He Went to Paris” tell stories of people whose lives have taken strange turns over the years, while “Come Monday” is as romantic a song as he’s ever written (it was for his wife).
Buffett created a cottage industry from his music, starting restaurant chains (Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, which still exists, and Cheeseburger in Paradise, which went out of business after he sold the chain) and writing several books (I very much liked A Pirate Looks at Fifty, which was published in 1998 but is as close to an autobiography as we’ll get). And his devoted fan base even got a nickname: Parrotheads, a takeoff on the Grateful Dead’s Deadhead base (Parrotheads were mostly baby boomers, as the name was coined in 1985 by Buffett and bassist Timothy B. Schmit, touring with Buffett during a period the Eagles were defunct).
Buffett also gets bonus points for keeping his traveling backing group, the Coral Reefer Band, around for decades. It’s a pretty large traveling group, and the only way that could happen is (a) they’re well paid for their work, and (b) it’s a happy atmosphere. (And they’ll stay in touch one way or another: keyboardist Michael Utley’s son is married to guitarist Mac McAnally’s daughter.)
Not everybody is going to love
Buffet’s music, but he’s certainly worth getting to know. I didn’t even realize
until today that, while I didn’t consider myself a fan, I have nine of his
albums. So, I guess I am a fan.
Buffett only has three true greatest hits sets available, despite spending much of his career on labels that are now owned by Universal Music Group (UMG), which has issued haphazardly chosen best-ofs for many artists that seem pretty much designed to be impulse purchased. (I wonder if Buffett leaned on UMG to keep that from happening—if he did, good for him.) Buffett’s first two albums, which bear little resemblance to his later music, were recorded for Barnaby Records; most of his 1970s output appeared on ABC-Dunhill Records (later just ABC, which was part of the television network’s company). ABC was purchased by MCA in 1979, where Buffett stayed until the mid-1990s, starting his own Margaritaville imprint in the early 1990s. After switching Margaritaville to Island Records in 1996, both Island and MCA became part of the UMG monolith, and Buffett went totally independent with his own Mailboat Records. He probably needs a good anthology from that label, but for now, all his hits sets are on UMG. (Got all that? There’s going to be a quiz later.)
Technically, the first Buffett albums I ever got were Son of a Son of a Sailor and Volcano, which I burned onto a CD in 2002. But I got this one a year later, and I’ll stick with it for my favorite hits set.
This is a two-CD set that runs
just under two and a half hours and was released in 2003, so it should be most
of the Buffett you need. It includes plenty of liner notes in the CD edition,
several live versions (including a particularly good take on “The Pascagoula
Run”), and a few rerecordings, as Buffett wanted to either fix what was wrong
with the first edition or take a new shot at the song. (Sometimes it’s a good
thing—“Saxophones” actually has saxophones on the new version; they
didn’t fit the budget in the original—sometimes it’s unnecessary, such as “He
Went to Paris.”) And it took me years to realize he’d rerecorded the fourth
verse of “Volcano” in the post-9/11 era to make it more appropriate. Of his 15
most-played live songs according to Setlist.com,
the only two that aren’t here are “Southern Cross” (a Crosby, Stills and Nash
cover that hadn’t become a regular feature for him quite yet), and his Alan
Jackson duet “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” (which would appear a few months
after this album released). You’ll find everything you want here.
Now here’s the odd part. I swear I saw it for download on iTunes a day or two ago for either $11.99 or $13.99, but it’s gone now. It is available on Amazon for a slightly-too-high $18.99 for download, but it’s out of print. And it’s not on Spotify (there’s a playlist somebody put together, but all of the rerecordings and live versions are obviously replaced by the studio versions. So, this may not be an option for everybody. I’ll check back in on this. It’s gone double platinum, so you might find a copy in a used CD store.
Other hits sets:
- Before the Salt, Before the Beach, and Now Yer Squawkin’ are all from Buffett’s first two recorded albums: Down to Earth (1970) and High Cumberland Jubilee (recorded 1971, released 1976). There are a few others as well—the songs were originally recorded for Barnaby Records, and the rights issued might not be cleared up. It’s not really buried treasure: Buffett hadn’t found his sound yet, so you’ll hear a vaguely antiwar folkie on these sets. He rerecorded a couple of the songs later in the 1970s on ABC.
- Songs You Know by Heart: Jimmy Buffet’s Greatest Hit(s) (1985) makes sly reference to the fact that, by then, the song most people knew him from was “Margaritaville,” which was his only Hot 100 hit to make it above #30. Buffett was recording furiously in the 1980s, releasing five studio albums between 1981 and 1985, but none of those songs appear here, which should tell you something. The only song from this set not to make it to Meet Me in Margaritaville is “Boat Drinks.” The only caveat I have is the 1985 release meant it was for vinyl as much as CD, so it clocks in a little short of 42 minutes. $8.99 for the download on either Amazon or iTunes. The disc is out of print, but since it’s sold seven million copies, you’re bound to find it in a used CD store somewhere.
- Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads (1992) is Buffett’s four-CD box set, released when everybody was releasing a box set. As with some other artists, it was too early: after having no RIAA-certified albums in the 1980s, Buffett released five studio albums in the ‘90s that went gold or platinum. Of course, this set might be the reason. It’s sorted into the four themes indicated by the title, and every album to that point is represented save the unloved Down to Earth and High Cumberland Jubilee, and the soundtrack for Rancho Deluxe. $37.99 for the download on Amazon, $39.99 on iTunes. There are a few used copies of the box set on Amazon for as low as $30.99 for the cassette (if you have a cassette player anymore and don’t care about sound quality) and as high as $149.99 for the CD (yikes!). I sometimes see individual CDs (no box, no liner notes) in used record stores, but honestly, I’ll listen to it on Spotify first.
- Buried Treasure (2017) is another before-he-was-famous set, but these are unreleased songs from the late 1960s. Dug up by a former producer a few years ago, Buffett embraced them and released them on his own label; the “deluxe version” includes Buffett’s recorded intros to the songs (which you can isolate out if you so choose). $11.49 for the Amazon download and $14.99 on iTunes, $17.99 for the disc on Amazon. I’m listening to his version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Circle Is Small” as I write this (he paid tribute to Lightfoot in the intro). Lightfoot passed earlier this year; I’ll try to write a blog post on him as soon as I can.
Now here’s the thing: Buffett’s live performances were so legendary you might be well off getting a live album in lieu of a greatest hits set. And while there are even more to choose from than I’m listing here, these are most representative of what you’d find on a hits set:
- You Had to Be
There: Recorded Live (1978) was recorded on the Son of a Son of a
Sailor tour, but only contains one song from that album (I think ABC
afraid the live album would cannibalize the studio album’s sales). A
double vinyl LP on its original release (over 103 minutes), it’s now an
absolute steal at $7.99 for the download on either Amazon or iTunes.
original vinyl album had a list price of $11.98, which means most people
more than $7.99 for the album 45 years ago.) The album also includes
songs that were unreleased on his studio albums. One drawback: Buffett
broken his leg on the tour and was on painkillers, which may have
performances. And a warning: there's a lot more NSFW patter between
songs. Buffett cut back on that over the years as kids started coming to
the concerts, with “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw)” eventually being dropped as a regularly-played song.
- Feeding Frenzy (1989) avoids repeats for the most part (except “Margaritaville”) with You Had to Be There. Two songs that were unreleased elsewhere are included. Don’t have this, so can’t offer an opinion. Also $7.99 for the download on Amazon and iTunes, but over a half hour shorter.
- Buffett Live: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays (1999) was his first release on his own Mailboat Records, and it’s full of his concert favorites. It’s short at 68 minutes, but will satisfy the casual fan, and the performances are good. $7.99 for the download as well.
- Finally, do check out his series of concert releases between 2004 and 2006 on Mailboat:
- Live in Auburn, WA
- Live in Las Vegas, NV
- Live in Cincinnati, CI
- Live in Mansfield, MA
- Live in Hawaii
- Live in Fenway Park
- Live in Anguilla
These are all two-CD sets recorded “directly from the soundboard”—no overdubs. (This is a particular pet peeve of mine—as far as I’m concerned, if a live album is overdubbed, it’s no longer live.) I have Live in Hawaii on disc, which I like a lot and includes a 16-minute DVD of concert footage. (Fenway Park and Anguilla also have DVDs, but theirs are considerably longer, with the Anguilla DVD clocking in at 82 minutes.) Mostly $11.99 for the downloads on Amazon and iTunes (a couple of them are $15.99 on iTunes), but the downloads don’t include the DVD material.
Other “If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From…” Blog Posts You Might Enjoy:
Allman Brothers Band
The Beach Boys
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Earth, Wind & Fire
Electric Light Orchestra
Daryl Hall & John Oates
Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship
The Moody Blues
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
The Rolling Stones
Diana Ross and/or The Supremes