At Fenway, Jimmy Buffett plans to get down to the business of having fun
When Jimmy Buffett’s name comes up these days, you’re more likely to hear about his business empire than his music. He has parlayed his Key West troubadour role into a far-reaching chain of Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurants, and ownership of 11 hotels. He has a reported 5,000 employees in his various enterprises, and Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $550 million.
But guess what?
He’s still a musician. Buffett has released more than 30 albums, is still crafting new songs, and revisiting his vast catalog. Asked if it bugs him that his business interests seem to overshadow his music, he admits “it does, but that seems to be what people are more interested in.”
He takes satisfaction in knowing, however, that he has done it his way. “I was very lucky in that I found a lifestyle before I had a successful career,’’ says Buffett, who headlines Fenway Park Thursday with his Coral Reefer Band.
“And even if the end was going to be me playing in a bar and I just had a sailboat, then I’d be OK with that. Little did I know that just by being authentic and moving to Key West and writing about it, it would turn into this. That was never planned. To be successful would be wonderful but the chances of that happening and pulling that gold ring are minuscule, but I was lucky enough to do it.”
Buffett jokes that he’s had only “3½ hits” in his career: “Margaritaville,” “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” and the “half-hit” of “Volcano.”
But his fans know there’s more depth to his catalog than just that. His latest summer jaunt is called the Son of a Son of a Sailor Tour, inspired by a song about his seafaring grandfather that he debuted 40 years ago. He has also been weaving rarities into his setlist, such as the rocker “Livingston Saturday Night” (featured in the 1975 Jeff Bridges film “Rancho Deluxe”), the comic “The Great Filling Station Holdup,” and the poignant “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown,” which he hadn’t played in 22 years.
“There’s enough room in the shows to satisfy people who want to hear the hits, and plenty of room to go back and orchestrate some other things that show that you care enough to make each show a little different. And I’ve always been able to ad-lib on stage and make sure that everybody didn’t think we were just taking the money and running, which unfortunately some people do when they get old,” says Buffet, now 71.
He extended his love of music to Broadway this year, writing and rewriting songs for “Escape to Margaritaville.” He also enlisted Emmy Award winner Greg Garcia (“My Name Is Earl”) and Boston native Mike O’Malley (“Shameless”) to write the book for the musical. “Margaritaville” closed after only four months, though it will be revived for a two-year touring production starting in Providence in October 2019.
“We feel there’s a market for it, but one of the hardest things for me to do was to walk into that theater and tell 75 people they didn’t have a job anymore,” he notes. “And the reason they didn’t have a job was that certain papers and reviewers didn’t like the show and went beyond themselves to kill it. But we’re going to declare a victory and get the hell out of there. We know we have an audience. The show does work and I’m happy it’s going out on tour.”
Buffett blames “the snobs of Broadway who do not like jukebox musical theater” for hastening its New York demise. “It’s a crapshoot. I knew that going in,” he says.
So all is not perfect with Buffett. He’s still human, but he still cares passionately about his musical legacy. Forty-one years ago he opened for the Eagles on tour. And when the Eagles regrouped this year after singer and guitarist Glenn Frey died, Buffett volunteered to join the band for four stadium shows.
“I’ll do it like the old days and open for you guys again. That’s basically how it came about,” he says.
He’s now on to Fenway Park, where he hasn’t played since performing two shows there in 2004, the year the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. Buffett’s band did a skit at that time to lift the so-called Curse of the Bambino. “Maybe I am the lucky guy. The Red Sox are in first place this year, so maybe all things do come around.”
Customarily, Buffett plays each summer at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield (which he still refers to as Great Woods, its original name). He’s performed there a record-setting 58 times, but was coaxed to try Fenway again by Boston promoter Don Law of Live Nation Concerts.
“Jimmy Buffett’s performances are like festivals,” Law says. “It was a blast when he did Fenway last time and we want to bring that festival atmosphere back.”
Meanwhile, Buffett’s business empire is branching out into a new realm, 55-and-over retirement communities that cater to longtime fans. Called Latitude Margaritaville, the adult communities are opening in Daytona Beach and Panama Beach, Fla., and Hilton Head, S.C., and all have tropical themes.
“Now retirement doesn’t look that good to me because fortunately I’m in good health and I don’t feel like doing much retiring these days,” he says.
“But I get the concept. And I went in last week (at Daytona Beach) to make sure everybody was happy. I popped in like Ed McMahon on Publishers Clearing House and visited people, and they told me they liked it,” he says.
“At that time of their lives it’s all about having fun. That’s what they tell me. And I’m still out here having fun doing what I’m doing. We’re still in the fun business, as far as I’m concerned.”
But Buffett also knows full well that these are difficult times for some folks, given the uneasiness in Washington, global tensions, economic worries, and social problems.
“People know my politics,” says Buffett, who hosted a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign that included Jon Bon Jovi and Paul McCartney. “I’ve never been shy about that, but I don’t take it on the stage because you need someplace to go without that. Whether it’s personal troubles or whether it’s politics, we want to hang in with people who want to have two hours of fun and forget about everything else.”
Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band
With Peter Wolf and the Midnight Travelers, and Caroline Jones
At Fenway Park, Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets $46-$146, www.livenation.com