By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
They are songs you know by heart.
Now a new book called “Buffett Backstories—Fifty Years, Fifty Songs” reveals the lifeblood for many of Jimmy Buffett’s notable tunes.
Through extensive research and numerous interviews, Key West, Fla., native Scott Atwell pieced together the genesis, inspiration and insights into the faces and places of 50 Parrot Head favorites.
It struck me right away that this is about much more than music, it’s an intriguing travel story presented as 50 unique trips.
It begins with “Railroad Lady,” co-written by Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker, after the two singer/songwriters rode together on the final run of the famed Pan American’s passenger train from New Orleans to Nashville .
Like the songs, “Buffett Backstories” transports you. In this case, back in time through a 50-year journey.
It’s time travel with a sub-tropical beat.
1971 trip to Key West changed everything
The book marks the golden anniversary of Buffett’s arrival in Key West as a passenger in Walker’s vintage Packard in November 1971 — Atwell refers to it as “the trip that would change everything.”
Atwell, who was ten when Buffett first visited his hometown, got the idea for the book while hosting a weekly all-Buffett radio program on a Key West FM station. Each program featured an in-depth look at the origin of one of the songs.
“Jimmy Buffett is a storyteller at heart, but the song lyrics are only the distilled version of the story,” Atwell says. “I was curious to understand the story behind the story.”
The chapter about “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” notes that Buffett’s extensive travels ensured he’d never run out of material for songwriting, and that he has kept hand-written journals about the places he went and people he encountered to draw from.
“Margaritaville” was always about a mental journey before becoming a mega chain of destination resorts.
Atwell relates that Buffett finished writing the lyrics to “Margaritaville” during a long day in transit from Austin, Texas, to Key West.
First beer at Chart Room bar
Regarding the target audience for “Buffett Backstories,” he says, “anyone with an interest in music or Key West. It’s written in a way that’s accessible but also with enough detail to be considered a reference book.
“Parrot Heads will recognize a lot of pieces to the stories but it’s the first time they’ve been brought together on a single page.”
“Buffett Backstories” strikes a personal chord, having sailed in a crew with Buffett to Key West in the 1980 race from Fort Lauderdale on the legendary 72-foot ketch Ticonderoga, the subject of a previous story at Craigslegz Travels: Classic sailing with Jimmy Buffett on fast track to Key West.
Atwell selected one of my photos of Buffett at the wheel of Ticonderoga for the chapter about “Son of a Son of a Sailor.”
One of the memorable moments from the weekend of revelry after the 1980 race was Buffett joining the house band on stage at the Pier House for a rollicking climax to that Saturday night.
Buffett had his first beer in Key West there at the renowned Chart Room bar in what was then known as the Pier House Motel at 1 Duval Street, as Atwell details in the backstory of “I Have Found Me a Home.”
Colorful Key West characters inspired Jimmy Buffett
There is a lot of early ’70s Key West in “Buffett Backstories.”
It was a very different place than today’s high-end tourist mecca and cruise ship stop.
It was a Key West that Atwell portrays as an end-of-the-road outpost where a gritty shrimp boat fleet packed the harbor “a stone’s throw from seedy bars with names like the Big Fleet, Mascot Lounge, Boat Bar and West Key.”
These venues were bulging with colorful characters whose personalities and exploits fit readily into verse. Notable among them, Phil Clark, the subject of “A Pirate Looks at Forty.”
There were more than a few smugglers in the shadows during a time that Key West was reeling from the closing of the U.S. Navy base, which wiped out numerous jobs (including for Atwell’s father, an electrician) and ruined the local economy.
“That really sent Key West into about a 10-year spiral and in a lot of ways opened the door for the drug trade, which I mention in the Phil Clark story,” Atwell said. “People were hard off and they had to do whatever they could to make a living.”
Buffett’s Key West transformed
Today’s Key West is a thriving tourist destination but would be a difficult place for a struggling young musician to try to gain a foothold in the business like Buffett did 50 years ago.
Housing costs are out of sight and hotel rates average close to $500 a night. Once quaint neighborhoods are now dominated by Airbnb rentals.
“The people who actually work in the city don’t live in the city any more. The can’t afford it,” said Atwell, who returned after a 35-year hiatus to a Key West transformed from the laid-back outpost of his youth.
“I left just as they were embracing tourism as the antidote to the naval base closing. They have in that period of time become probably the most successful tourism enterprise in the world per capita. The hotel rates here now are on par with New York or higher,” Atwell says.
“So it has completely turned into a tourism-driven — not just an economy but a lifestyle. You can’t escape it. … They are uber successful at it.”
Buffett, of course, has his flag firmly planted in the transformation of Key West with the Margaritaville Beach House Resort and a restaurant on Duval Street.
Subjects make their own music
While much of Buffett’s early inspiration centered on Key West, the odyssey wound its way to Texas, where Buffett eked out a living for awhile playing coffee houses and junior colleges around the state, Colorado and his various haunts in the Caribbean.
Atwell says his favorite backstory is about “Volcano,” inspired by Buffett’s experience recording the album of the same title on the volcanic island of Montserrat at
the studio established by George Martin, legendary producer for the Beatles.
Perhaps most enlightening is the story behind “Chanson Pour Les Petits Enfants,” a fanciful and enigmatic tune on the “Volcano” album that seems like pure fantasy. Turns out children in the song were part of the liveaboard sailing community at the island of St. Barts, one of Buffett’s favorite places. Two of those children, Mishka Frith and older sister Heather Nova, went on to lucrative careers as singer/songwriters.
Atwell’s interview with Mishka Frith, a pop-reggae star in Maui, is a highlight of “Buffett Backstories.”
“I knew I had to find him and I did—in Hawaii. His would have been a great story by itself but the second part of the tale, how he became a singer, capped it off,” Atwell says.
Thanks to Atwell we now know the rest of the story of those songs Parrot Heads know by heart.
Release Date: Oct. 1, 2021
Price: $19.71 (softcover), $9.99 Digital
Available via: Amazon
In Key West at: KW Airport’s Last Chance Gifts, Kino Sandals, Books & Books, and the Conch Train Gift Store.