During his 33-year recording career Jimmy Buffett has worn many sombreros. He started in Nashville, Tenn., as a wannabe country singer in the early ’70s, moved to Key West, Fla., became a beach bum and had a huge hit with “Margaritaville” in 1977, was a washed-up one-hit wonder by the mid-’80s, became a popular concert attraction in the ’90s and was back on the charts — the country charts — with his 2004 disc “License to Chill.”
Through all of it, there have been the Parrotheads, Buffett’s colorful cadre of fans (who dress in costumes ranging from Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts — and that’s just the dudes — to banana and shark suits), a group that routinely helps Buffett’s records debut in the top 10 and make his party-time concert excursions among the top-grossing annual tours.
Buffett’s new disc, “Take the Weather With You,” officially ends his country music experiment — although the video for the lead single, “Bama Breeze,” is being shown on Country Music Television — as Buffett goes back to the Waspafarian, steel drum-heavy sound that’s graced his records since the ’80s.
Older Buffett fans view his first four albums (which came out between 1973 and 1977) as his greatest work. There are plenty of those fans, as witnessed by the Web site cobo. org, which stands for Church of Buffett Orthodox (and according to the site was damaged by “non-believers” but will be back up soon), folks who feel that the singer sold out in 1977 and that “Margaritaville” was “apostasy.” They probably won’t like “Take the Weather With You.” Newer Parrotheads, however, will fire up the blenders and spin it as an end-of-summer soundtrack, especially in these parts, where summer never really ends.
While “License to Chill” was a departure from Buffett’s later work and a throwback to records like 1974’s “Living and Dying in 3/4 Time” and 1975’s “AIA” with its mostly acoustic guitar and pedal steel country vibe, “Take the Weather With You” is more in the vein of “Barometer Soup” (1995), “Banana Wind” (1996) and “Beach House on the Moon” (1999), a cheerful world music/pop mash-up recorded directly for the Parrotheads.
What is surprising about “Take the Weather With You” is that Buffett, a vibrant songwriter and novelist whose real gift is taking the reader and the listener to “Margaritaville” with him, only had a hand in writing three of the 14 songs on the record, instead giving the steel drum Buffett-ization to tunes by Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler (“Whoop De Doo”), Crowded House (“Weather With You”) and country singer Merle Haggard (“Silver Wings”).
After the critical and commercial comeback of “License to Chill,” which featured Buffett’s best songwriting in years, there is a bit of a letdown with “Take the Weather With You.” Although the cover tunes are strong and you can practically hear the wind in the palms throughout, Buffett’s real charm has always been in his own writing, and the four tunes he co-wrote here, “Party at the End of the World,” “Everybody’s on the Phone,” “Hula Girl at Heart” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On,” won’t make any fans forget such older, superior Buffett-penned tunes as “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” “Havana Daydreamin’ ” and “One Particular Harbor,” or even the gorgeous “Coast of Carolina” on “License to Chill.”
But most Parrotheads won’t complain, as any new Buffett disc offers the excuse to break out the tequila, the margarita mix and the aloha shirts in an effort to keep that endless summer alive.