Still Rockin' In Jimmy Buffett's Key West Margaritaville

Sunny escapism made the singer rich. But in his new No. 1 best seller, he (almost) gets serious

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Jimmy Buffett has lived in some of the sweetest spots on the planet--Key West, Aspen and St. Barts before they became boutiques--but right now it looks as if there's no other place he'd rather spend the weekend than a staid Midwestern city hours from the nearest beach. "Saturday night in Cincinnati--it don't get no better than this!" Buffett yelps as his 13-piece Coral Reefer Band takes the stage in Mardi Gras costumes and towering headdresses. The crowd at the Riverbend amphitheater roars its agreement: 18,500 otherwise respectable people, many in full tropical regalia--foam parrot hats, grass skirts and coconut-shell bras. And that's just the men. (Let's not even discuss the folks dancing naked on their boats in the Ohio River, right behind the stage.) Buffett's fans, the Parrotheads--so named by a friend of Buffett's at a Cincinnati, Ohio, show in 1986--have made tonight his 35th consecutive sell-out in this city, the kind of middle-American burg where people are thirstiest for Buffett's cheerful, escapist anthems. Quenching that thirst is Buffett's civic duty.

Twenty-one Julys have come and gone since Buffett scored his only Top 10 single, Margaritaville, but every year Parrotheads across the country flock to hear his island-inflected folk-pop tunes, drawn from three decades' worth of albums and played pretty much the same way night after night, year after year. "He's like an old friend you haven't seen in a while, but it's comfortable," says David Jahn, 51, a hospital administrator with parrots painted on his toenails. "No surprises."

The fans spend some $50 million a year on Buffett concert tickets, albums and merchandise (from T shirts and caps to margarita mix and salt shakers) and on the comfort foods and frozen concoctions sold at his Margaritaville Cafes in Key West and New Orleans (new ones will open this year in Charleston, S.C., and at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla.). The fans have also subsidized Buffett's leap into the world of letters, buying so many of his books (children's stories, a novel, a short-story collection, and his latest, a travelogue/ memoir called A Pirate Looks at Fifty) that last month Buffett became one of only six writers to reach the No. 1 spot on both the New York Times' fiction and nonfiction best-seller lists. (The others: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Styron, Irving Wallace and Dr. Seuss.) Buffett, quoting one of his early songs, says he is still "tryin' to figure out how I ever got here."

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