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Q&A: ‘Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way’

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way is available now from Touchstone. 

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Over on the A Good Life All the Way Facebook page, I asked if anyone had any questions. A few did, and they were good ones and, with reactions to the book now rolling in (thank you everyone who’s reached out to say they enjoyed it), I thought the answers might offer some good context to a book I think has a few quirks.

Matt asked: “How many different places did you visit in the process of interviews, etc.?” The thing about this book is it was conceived as a first-person travel narrative. I was interested in Margaritaville, its forty-year trip from Key West to America’s suburban sprawl, and I wondered if you could see what it was from what it became.

In a great many ways, the book remains that. We just stripped the first person from almost all of it.

So let’s start Labor Day weekend, 2013. In June of that summer, the Oregonian laid off a whole bunch of us, but there was a catch. We had to work through the summer to get our severance. It’s a pretty lousy way to treat people, and I was emotionally beat by the time I walked out the building for the last time after 16 years of walking in. We immediately went to the coast, because we always go to the coast with friends for Labor Day weekend.

IMG_8690On a perfect day, with the rest of the house napping, I poured a very large rum drink, grabbed my iPod and went for a walk, knee-deep in the Pacific Ocean. I listened to Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes and thought about the sweep of Margaritaville. When I got back to the house, I grabbed my laptop, checked the tour schedule and with deadlines rushing toward me for Springsteen: Album by Album, I booked a trip to Las Vegas.

Two months later, I spent a weekend hanging out at the Flamingo, and then stayed a few extra days to make a trip out visit the Nevada’s gambling regulators and copy the transcript of Jimmy’s appearance before the Gaming Control Board.

In January 2014, one of my best friends got married in Key West. I flew out early, stopped in Gainesville to poke through materials Jimmy had donated there. I stopped south of Tampa to spend some time with James “Sunny Jim” White (no relation) and Hugo Duarte, catching them playing a gig at the amazing little train station in Venice, Fla. That was my introduction to Trop Rock.

In Key West, I spent time at the library, reading through old Citizens, and spent a fantastic afternoon with Tim Glancey, talking about the island and his days on the road with Jimmy. It would take another 16 months to finish the book proposal. I signed the deal with Touchstone in June 2015.

Then we were off. I flew to Nashville and drove to Muscle Shoals and then back up to Nashville for a few days. (Really enjoyed both towns, though I couldn’t get a drink on a Sunday night in Muscle Shoals, and it was my birthday.)

I flew to Orlando and drove to Lakeland. From Lakeland, I headed back to Gainesville. From Gainesville, I drove for what like forever to Mobile. From Mobile, I snuck over to Pensacola and stopped at the Flora-Bama on my way back.

After Mobile, I went to Pascagoula and, by dumb luck, got there the day they were dedicating Buffett Bridge. Had a fantastic day on the beach while Jimmy and Mac played a nine-song set that closed with Jimmy alone on stage playing “The Captain and the Kid” just steps from his grandfather’s old house. The next day, I was sitting Laffite’s Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans when the TV behind the bar cut to a shot of Jimmy on the sideline of the Saints game. They were playing the Buccaneers. Felt right. IMG_8333

After that, Key West for Meeting of the Minds. Through the magic of Airbnb, I bunked on a sailboat on Stock Island for the week and got drunk with a guy who claimed to have once been Minnesota’s most wanted fugitive. When the week was up, I split north to Hollywood to stay at the hotel. From there, I raced to Orlando for lunch with Bob Liberman. From Orlando, I cut down to Treasure Island for a quick chat with Joe Nuzzo. From there, I raced back to Ft. Lauderdale to catch a flight to Seattle.

There’d be another trip to Las Vegas, a trip to Seattle to see Kenny Chesney, a stop near Portland to see Zac Brown Band, and a trip to a wonderful local outdoor venue where I got to sit down and chat with Ben Jaffe before a Preservation Hall Jazz Band set. I got to fill notebooks and tape recorders and pulled a pile other resources. I spent hours on the phone and stacked up emails. I schemed a trip to Livingston, Mont., just to write, because I thought it’d be cool as hell to say, “I’m going to Montana to write.” (It was.)

After writing 30,000 words, my editor suggested I reroute the book to something more closely resembling a classic biography. It’s the best version of the book, by far. But it’s still something of a mutt, which brings us to …

Fred, who asked: “Although Jimmy wasn’t directly involved in the project, have you heard what he thinks of the book?” Which dovetails nicely with Michele, who asked, “… was it always your intention to do a bio without his involvement, or did it just evolve that way?

There are two things I wish had made it into the book.

  1. The current iteration of the Coral Reefer Band, many of them in the band far longer than any of the earlier musicians, deserved more run than they get. They’re great musicians and total pros. But I had to shift to the growth of the Margaritaville brand somewhere, and there was where the line was drawn. I did’t want to write War and Peace.
  2. There was an old Sun Ra chant I came across. At one point it was going to lead the book, and it got cut in the shuffle. It went: If you’re not a myth, whose reality are you?

Jimmy Buffett, as he is imagined, is one of the great American myths. Right up there with Michael Jordan. How the idea of Jimmy Buffett has played across four decades of American culture is what interested me.

As reporting progressed, the book moved from first-person travel narrative about Margaritaville to third-person account of the people you meet traveling Margaritaville to something like a biography because Jimmy is inseparable from Margaritaville. It his energy, his imagination, his passion and his positivity — that smile that hasn’t been changed by time — that fuels the band and the business.

I always knew I could work with the mythology, that it was there to be explored in ways that hadn’t before. I never really expected Jimmy to call. I obviously hoped he would. I made sure my passport was in order in case he did. But I’m not surprised he didn’t. There are plenty of good reasons not to sit down and chat for something like this, and they aren’t personal. Plus, every time I send a new note to his management, he’d pop up in someplace like Easter Island. If we’re being honest, I wouldn’t pause to talk to me, either.

And I’ll forever be infinitely grateful to the more than four dozen folks who did share their memories of people, places, records, tours and times. The people you meet wandering Margaritaville are pretty great.

As I said, it’s kind of a quirky book — as much cultural history as biography and not fully either. Like Jimmy, it doesn’t quite have a genre, and I’d love to say I planned it that way, but I didn’t. Then again, if you do one of these things, it should inhabit some of the subject’s world. So maybe it was inevitable.

Buft if there’s been some disappointment from folks, most of it results from that confusion, which is on me. (Though criticism is unavoidable, nothing is universally loved, and you shouldn’t even try for such a thing.)

I noticed an Amazon review* the other day that said the book was Ok if you could ignore all the “extraneous fluff.” One man’s extraneous fluff is another man’s important cultural context. There isn’t a page in the book that doesn’t have something to do with Jimmy and Margaritaville. A few have disagreed. That’s fair and that’s fine.

Buffett’s cut a wide, wide path through the world. There are many characters in his story, and they populate Margaritaville. I found them amazing and generous and fascinating.

Jimmy’s weaved his way through the culture like few before, and I was glad I got the opportunity to examine how and why, to pull on a few of the threads of that story while so many are still around to tell the tales.

Cheers,

Ryan

*They tell you not to read them. They don’t tell you how not to read them.

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