My friend and fellow drummer Chris Hambrook didn't start out as a Jimmy Buffett devotee. Growing up on the rougher side of Baltimore, he preferred hard rock and mischief making to the easygoing island life. Accepting an invitation to a Buffett concert in 1994 did the trick, though. With nothing else better to do, he moved to Key West two weeks after the show. After working on a fishing boat and at a few old-school restaurants, he landed a bartending gig at Margaritaville. So did his wife, Trish, who he married in 1995.
These days, as bartenders in the historic district of Key West, the couple has rightfully earned the nickname of Mr. and Mrs. Margaritaville.
"We have the greatest lives because of Jimmy and his fans — that's why I treat them all like the gold they are," Hambrook says. "We wouldn't have anything if it wasn't for them, so for me, it's the easiest math in the world."
I met the Hambrooks during a trip to the venue last year. The band Spunjwurthi invited me to drum with them during a six-night residency. It was a working vacation requiring a nightly set of tourist-pleasing, cheesy rock (minus any Buffett). It could have been easy to go through the motions, but the party vibes, optimism, and moral support from the Hambrooks inspired us.
We made a return trip last week, playing another six-night run. Last year, I tried to ignore the Buffett memorabilia and barrage of Buffett music and footage playing over the sound system and screens. The songwriter's Gulf Coast persona permeated the place. This year, intrigued by the Hambrooks' loyalty and dedication to the man, I tried to be a bit more open-minded.
The Mississippi-born Buffett moved to Key West in the 1970s, where he gradually created his beach-bum persona.
"He created his own kind of genre," Hambrook says. "He had the idea of mixing country/western and reggae. He practically worshiped Bob Marley. He's always written about the island, as well as his travels all over the world, whether it's a street in Paris or a harbor in Tahiti."
Key West eventually became synonymous with Buffett's music and lyrical themes — from his early hits "Why Don't We Get Drunk," "Come Monday," and "Margaritaville" to later anthems, ditties, and collaborations.
"I think it's all about escapism," says Hambrook. "When Jimmy first wrote 'Margaritaville' it was about a state of mind, not a particular place."
Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Store officially opened in 1985. Through the 1990s, Margaritaville became an internationally known brand.
"For Jimmy's fans, this is their church, because this is the original Margaritaville," says Hambrook. "Even in tough times, they'll save and do anything they can do to come down here and live like Jimmy for a while."
Earlier this month, the Florida House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing April 16 as "Jimmy Buffett Day" across the state in appreciation of Buffett's "charitable efforts, support of the environment, and positive economic impact in the state." The resolution described Buffett as a "world-class entertainer known for his support of charitable and environmental causes throughout the world."
Buffett's 2011 Welcome to Fin Land Tour kicks off on April 16 in Tampa. Last month, the idea of attending a Buffett show would have made me laugh. This week, after a brief change in latitudes, I've experienced a slight change in attitude.