One from the Road: Jason Isbell, Jimmy Buffett and that Nashville Sound

 Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way will be released May 9 on Touchstone Books. The Drive-By Truckers‘ Patterson Hood says it “manages to go well beyond the mythology and legends while still giving them their just place.” 

Jimmy. Willie. In the Margaritaville Cafe in Nashville.

When Jimmy Buffett first went to see Don Light, the man who’d become his manager and get him the record deal that would lead to, well, everything, he took a reel-to-reel tape. Buffett took it to Light’s office, which had once been Chet Atkins’ office and wasn’t far from a street named after Chet Atkins.


Chet Atkins didn’t get his name on a street sign strictly because of his musical chops. He was equally skilled as a producer and a record executive. He perfected, polished and sold what became known as the Nashville Sound.

Glossy, lush and carefully built for crossover appeal, that formula — executed perfectly by million-dollar voices like George Jones and Patsy Cline — proved so profitable that when interviewers inevitably asked Atkins to define the Nashville Sound, he’d jingle the change in his pockets.

Buffett didn’t fit the formula. He never fit the formula. Not even when Jimmy Bowen arrived and changed it, ushering in the era of arena/stadium country. Not even when Buffett worked with Bowen. Buffett didn’t fit any formula until one day he became the formula.

I flew to Nashville on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015. I remember the exact day because it was my birthday. I hopped from Portland to LA and then from LA to Nashville. Alphonso Ribeiro and Dave Schools were sitting in first class to Nashville. I wasn’t.

At baggage claim, I had a quick chat with Todd Snider’s excellent road guy Brian Kincaid, who was picking up Schools for some Hard Working Americans studio work. Then I grabbed a car and headed to Muscle Shoals, listening to what I can only describe as Gun Talk. It was like Car Talk, but for guns.

Anyhow, I got to Muscle Shoals, dropped my bags, ran out to dinner at 9:30 p.m., sat down at the bar and a lovely woman said, “What can I get you sweetheart?”

“I’d love a beer,” I said.

“Honey. It’s Sunday in Alabama.”

“I’d love a Sprite,” I said.

Happy birthday to me.

I spent the next day with Norbert Putnam, who produced Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, and played with Elvis, and it a bonafide legend with a historic home in the middle of Florence, Alabama where he lives with his exceedingly nice wife and two fantastic dogs. Norbert made a call and took me over to F.A.M.E. Studios.

Jason Isbell‘s new record had come out, and coming off Southeastern and all its accolades,

That Muscle Shoals sound.

he was the grinning spittin’ image of a hometown hero. Rolling Stone‘s review of Something More than Free was tacked to the wall between F.A.M.E.’s two studios. The next day, at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, a vinyl copy of that record was sitting next to a turntable in the control room where the Stones had worked out “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.”


I said goodbye to Norbert and drove to Nashville, the town Buffett couldn’t conquer until he stopped trying to. I spent a nice evening at Will Kimbrough‘s home where he wished me luck with the humidity. I hung out with Keith Sykes in a studio, and spent time with Buzz Cason at his. I spent a sweaty afternoon wandering Broadway after checking out the Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” exhibition. Norbert was one of those cats, and he had a bass on display. Buffett was one of those guys who came in Dylan’s wake, and the cover of A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean was part of a display, surrounded by Jason and the Scorchers, Emmylou Harris, J.J. Cale, Steve Earle, Todd Snider … it was a big display. Isbell was there, too.

Eventually, I settled onto a bar stool in the emptiest bar on Broadway I could find. There was a decent of enough guitar player strumming and singing on stage. A guy with an American flag-bedecked beer koozie asked if he knew any “patriotic songs,” and so he played Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me” and pocketed the tip.

I was chatting with the bartender when the guy on stage announced he needed to make a call and asked the bartender to take over. He jumped up on stage and took a run at Sturgill Simpson’s “You Can Have the Crown.”  While he was playing that, a couple of guys came in the bar.

“You need a beer?” he asked when he was done.

“It can wait a minute,” one of them said. And so he knocked out Isbell’s “We’ve Met.”

Later, as he counted out the day’s tips in a second-floor cigar bar, he unfurled his story. He was kid from Indiana who wanted to sing country music, but not the stuff they were playing on the radio. But it was tough. In Nashville, especially on the tourist-strangled strip, people come to “hear what they know.” The guy playing “Friends in Low Places” is going to pull a bigger crowd than the guy playing “We’ve Met.” The guy working the bar down at Margaritaville wasn’t playing deep cuts for the lunch crowd.

In some ways, not much had changed since Buffett arrived in 1969, left in 1971 … only to return often since. He returned in the eighties to work with Bowen and Tony Brown. He returned in the nineties to set up the offices of Margaritaville Records. The Margaritaville Cafe opened. A Margaritaville hotel is on the way not terribly far from where Roger Miller’s King of the Road Motel once stood and where, in the parking lot, Buffett encountered a Walking Tall sheriff. Buffett’s not the first singer to get into the hotel business.

I finished my drink and slipped out the bar to my car. Walking up Broadway, I passed one of those performers who works as a statue, for tips. He was painted silver and had a miner’s hat and a shovel. He was getting out of a minivan. A group of drunks whooped from one of those bars on wheels people pedal around town. It was a nice night in Music City.

I thought of all this, of course, because Isbell announced his new record yesterday. Kristofferson, Prine, Buffett in his own small way, they opened Nashville up a little. They set a story in motion that would the expand the possibilities of what a song could say and sound like in Nashville.

Isbell will release The Nashville Sound — his version — on June 16. And because I root for Isbell in the way that I just like to root for talent to win in the end, I hope to hell it sounds like money.

Once again, that’s Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way, due May 9 from Touchstone Books.




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