The party may not be over for Parrotheads, even if Jimmy Buffett’s gone.
The majordomo of Margaritaville died Sept. 1 at the age of 76 of complications from Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer that was diagnosed back in 2019. It would seem to bring an end to more than five decades of boat drinks, cheeseburgers in paradise, fins to the left and right, and everything else that’s part of Buffett culture.
But members of his Coral Reefer Band may have other plans — as did Buffett himself.
“There’s definitely talk about doing something to keep it going,” says Michael Utley, 76, who worked with Buffett for 50 years, including scripting the annual summer shows. “(Buffett) would’ve wanted that. He always wanted that.”
Mac McAnally, a 45-year Coral Reefer veteran adds that Buffett “wanted that family to keep rolling. We haven’t figured out exactly how to do it, but we love being together too much not to.
“The privilege of riding shotgun with the thing that was Jimmy Buffett … was a joy every single day, and I will carry that with me forever. So whatever form we get to keep going in, we’ll do it.”
That, of course, will be good news to Parrotheads everywhere — especially in the Detroit metro area, where Buffett began playing during the ’60s at the Raven Gallery in Southfield and performed 32 times, starting in 1982, at the Pine Knob Music Theatre, which Buffett called “one of my favorite places to play. It’s just great every time we play there.”
He also headlined Comerica Park twice — in 2012 and 2013.
Utley and McAnally say discussions about what to do moving forward likely will take place early in the new year. In the meantime they’re rolling out “Equal Strain on All Parts,” Buffet’s 32nd studio album, which was recorded earlier this year and finished prior to his death.
Co-produced by the two Coral Reefers, “Equal Strain” features 14 songs, 11 co-written by Buffett (six of those with McAnally), along with an album-closing cover of Bob Dylan’s 1976 track “Mozambique,” a particular favorite of Buffett’s. The set includes guest appearances by Paul McCartney, Emmylou Harris, Angelique Kidjo, Will Kimbrough, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and even Buffett’s dog, Kingston.
“We played last August at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin and (Buffett) had spoken to Mac earlier in the summer and just mentioned he’d like to do another album, maybe in January,” Utley recalls. “No songs had been written. I said, ‘Mac, have you heard any songs yet?’ ‘No.’ ‘So we’re going into the studio in January and nothing’s been written?’”
Not long after, however, Utley and McAnally began getting “these scribbled notes about ideas for songs” that also were sent to other co-writers, including Utley’s son, Mick, and McAnally’s daughter, Erin, who are married, as well as to frequent collaborator Will Kimbrough and to Coral Reefer Band members Pete Mayer and Roger Guth.
“Everybody’s got a sort of assignment,” Utley says, “and we went from there.”
Buffett had been hospitalized during the fall and was being treated for cancer, but neither Utley nor McAnally felt Buffett was motivated by mortality.
“I don’t honestly know if this one was extra-fueled because he felt like it might be the last thing he had to say,” notes McAnally, 66, who will be participating in a special tribute to Buffett at the CMA Awards on Wednesday, Nov. 8, in Nashville. “He never let on how sick he was, which was his nature. He didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for him or worrying about him. He led us and he never showed anything besides ‘Let’s do this and let’s make it the best it can be.’”
Utley, however, noticed that “usually when we do records or projects we’ll get about halfway through and he’s on to the next thing. He didn’t do that this time. He really wanted to finish it and do it right.
“And some really magical stuff happened.”
One particularly charming moment was when McCartney joined Buffett and company in the studio to play bass and record vocals for “My Gummie Just Kicked In,” a song that stemmed from a dinner out with their wives.
“He just nailed it,” recalls Utley, who was in the studio while McAnally was listening in remotely. It was like when I was 17 and listening to the Beatles; (McCartney) played like a kid — and he’s older than we are, y’know?”
“Equal Strain” was finished by May, but had to wait for vinyl production before its Nov. 3 release. Buffett heard the finished product and was talking about it when Utley and McAnally visited him at his home in Sag Harbor, New York, the day before he died. “The first thing he said was, ‘Yeah, we got an album coming out!’,” recalls Utley, 76. “He was always very positive like that.”
The album will be accompanied by some music and lyric videos, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage from the sessions — some of which is already available via YouTube. Utley said he’s satisfied they made an album that’s “sort of a culmination of everything (Buffet) was or is, and McAnally says the Coral Reefer crew is happy to have created a final statement for their leader.”
“He was smiling 24 hours before he left this world, just like he won the Oscar” McAnally remembers. “He put his hand on his heart and said, ‘hell of a ride’ and ‘keep it going.’ He didn’t want a funeral or memorial; he wanted a party that rolls on.”