If Nashville had beaches, Jimmy Buffett might never leave the place. Still, the land-locked Tennessee town has had an undeniable pull on Buffett since he first came there more than 30 years ago.
"I had two offers to write songs, one from [Nashville songwriter and producer] Buzz Cason and one from Johnny Rivers in California," recalls Buffett. "I really wanted to go to Johnny Rivers, because I kind of came out of New Orleans and Baton Rouge." Nashville won out, Buffett says, "because I didn't have enough money to buy gas to get to California."
That trip began a long relationship with Nashville. In those early days, he worked as a reporter for Billboard magazine. He recorded such hits as "Come Monday" and "Margaritaville" in the city's studios. About every 10 years, he briefly flirted with country radio. "If you stick around long enough," Buffett says, "people know you're still around."
These days, it'd be hard not to know Buffett's still around. In 2003, Buffett got his first #1 by singing "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" with Alan Jackson. License to Chill , Buffett's latest album, boasts a Top 10 cover of Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'" that features Jackson, Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith and George Strait. Each of those acts sings a duet with Buffett on the album, as do Martina McBride, Nanci Griffith, and Bill Withers. License to Chill sold more than a quarter-million copies in its first week, giving Buffett the first #1 album of a recording career that dates to the early 1970s.
Buffett says hearing of so many contemporary country singers influenced by his music convinced him he ought to record a country album even before Jackson approached him with "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."
"I had decided to go in and do an album that would, hopefully, get the attention of country radio and country sales, because that's what was happening out there," he says. He recorded original songs and a couple of country classics, like "Hey Good Lookin'." But he rounded out the album with songs by John Hiatt, Leon Russell and Will Kimbrough, writers who've had experiences with mainstream Nashville that mirror Buffett's own.
Now, with "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" and "Hey Good Lookin'," Buffett has more Top 40 hits on the country side than he does in pop.
"I love the fact that country seems to be broadening and inclusive. It's the listenable music of America. It's not a big giant step for me to come over and sing country. I love doing it; I just hadn't done it in a while. But it's a part of who I was. I'd attempted a few forays into the country world and been brushed back vehemently. Nothing ever worked before. That's the nature of this business: Everything comes back around."