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The LP spawned a hit single called “Margaritaville,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100 and topped the Easy Listening chart. It’s a marimba laced folk rock song that manages to be wistful even while wearing a shit eating grin. At the time of its release, the song may have appeared destined for the one hit wonder dustbin of rock history. Obviously, that’s not what happened.
Instead, Buffett turned “Margaritaville” into not only a meal ticket, but also a legacy career and a full blown lifestyle brand, with hotels, restaurants, alcohol lines, food, books, even shoes. Forbes estimates the 69 year old’s annual earnings at $40 million, placing him at No. 66 on 2016’s richest celebs list. Less documented, however, is what Buffett has given a group of uniquely devoted fans: a home.
They affectionately call themselves Parrot Heads, and they celebrate Buffett’s entire body of work. obsessive fanbase of the Grateful Dead, Parrot Heads have a corporate structure headed up by Parrot Heads in Paradise (PHIP). Parrot Head clubs pay dues.
They are not only Buffett buffs, but also an international charitable organization, with 200 plus chapters across the planet. Think of them as a rock ‘n’ roll Rotary Club, all clad in Hawaiian shirts. Their slogan? “Party with a Purpose.”
Minnesota has two official PHIP chapters: the St. MinneSomePlace club in the Twin Cities, and the Lakes Area Parrot Heads based in Detroit Lakes. To better understand Parrot Heads, we spoke to several members of St. MinneSomePlace club, as well as Robert “Bob” Burtis, whose band Bob and the Beachcombers released the 2009 Buffett tribute/parody album Welcome to Minnesotaville!
Parrot Heads dance at the HAMA of 2011
Bob Burtis of the Beachcombers recalls adding Buffett’s material to his band’s previously Beach Boys focused set in the mid ’90s, as Parrot Head clubs began to proliferate.
“We started getting requests for ‘Margaritaville,'” he remembers, “and the Parrot Head contingent was coming out of the woodwork.”
Jeff Hage, a community newspaper editor in central Minnesota, counts himself among St. MinneSomePlace’s 250 strong membership. He’s served as a Parrot Head club president, and he founded the Chippewa Valley Parrot Head club in western Wisconsin.
Hage joined his first Parrot Head club around 2000, while living in Des Moines, but his Buffett fandom goes all the way back to 1977. That’s when his father, who loved “Margaritaville” on the radio, bought home a copy of Changes in Latitudes. Hage was hooked. Louis, only to find out Buffett would be playing again in Kansas City two days later. Naturally, he made the drive.
One of Hage’s early Buffet memories goes all the way back to a middle school party. One of his classmates nursed a fondness for Buffet’s then current hit “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” off 1978’s Son of a Son of a Sailor.
“I got invited to the hottest eighth grade Catholic [school] party going on in south Minneapolis because I owned the album,” Hage remembers. “I got to bring it, and she could play ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ at the party, so that there was enough to make me a fan for life.”
Mike Shaughnessy, the current “head bwana” (aka president) of St. MinneSomePlace, fell for Buffett after a sort of trial by fire. Years ago, Shuaghnessy’s former boss took him and three co workers on a boat trip on Lake Michigan. The entire soundtrack came from a Discman loaded with three Jimmy Buffett CDs.
“By the time we were done with that three day trip, I didn’t care if I ever heard Jimmy Buffett again,” Shaughnessy says. “Like, I don’t ever want to know anything about him.”
Later on, Shaughnessy found himself buying Buffett’s greatest hits collection. He’s now seen Buffett 12 times.
To an outsider, Buffett might seem a strange object for intense devotion. He isn’t critically lionized, but he’s also far too successful to be an overlooked gem, a la his pal Jerry Jeff Walker. He spent the mid ’70s developing his grinning beach bum persona and touring hard, clocking the occasional minor hit.
Parrot Heads by the pool at the HAMA of 2011
Once “Margaritaville” broke, though, Buffett was savvy enough to recognize it could be the thesis to his career, giving a name and an anthem to beach culture. He built an empire around it. Parrot Heads aren’t bothered that Buffett’s milked his cash cow to infinity and beyond. Hage says he admires the singer’s entrepreneurial sense he suckles the salt rimmed teat.
“I’m a craft beer guy,” Hage says, “but if I’m getting a mainstream something at the liquor store, or at a bar, without even thinking, I’m going to buy a six pack of [Margaritaville Brewing Company’s] Land Shark, you know what I mean? And at the store, I buy the Margaritaville food.”
The complete devotion of the Parrot Heads brings to mind the working class ideals of another act from a totally different world: the Minutemen. “Our band could be your life,” the ’80s DIY punk heroes sang. And really, what phrase better describes the act of buying, say, frozen shrimp named for your favorite song?
Minutemen track “Maybe Partying Will Help” could be a slogan for the Parrot Heads’ charity work. The St. MinneSomePlace club’s other big annual PHlocking is called “This Hotel Room” (after a song Buffett co wrote with Steve Goodman), and the money is funneled to local charities.
“We try to get the smaller [charities] in the metro area,” Shaughnessy says.
They’ve given to Prism Thrift Shop, the Minnesota Zoo’s World of Birds, and the Store to Door program, among others. HAMA serves as the club’s holiday party, and in the spirit of the season, members bring toys to donate to Toys for Tots.
“We’re not margarita drinking, always intoxicated partiers,” Hage says. “We’re just good people doing good things, who kind of do it in the name of that island lifestyle.”
Let’s say you wanted to hop the Buffet bandwagon. Where do you start with Buffett, whose career is more than 30 albums deep?
The Parrot Head consensus is with his greatest hits collection, Songs You Know By Heart, also known as the “Yellow Album,” Sherwin says. Hage likes to call it Songs You Play to Death. Shaughnessy and Hage both cite Changes in Latitudes as another favorite, and Hage adds 1989’s glossy Off to See the Lizard as a close second.