On a recent morning, a friend snuck up behind me while I was fiddling with an old Spotify playlist and let out a snort at what he saw sandwiched between Pavement tracks and obscure Tina Turner B-sides.
“Is that…Jimmy Buffett? That’s not Jimmy Buffett. Wait, you’re listening to…Jimmy Buffett?”
“I think,” I stuttered in a forced-hushed whisper, turning down A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean to barely-audible levels. I’d been caught.
Despite the ever-expanding attention given to ironically embracing odd, kitschy subcultures, the world of Parrotheads—Jimmy Buffett superfans—has remained largely untouched. Somehow, the Jimmy Buffett-adjacent lifestyle sits at a strange cultural precipice: it’s too mainstream to be “revived” (à la tiki drinks), but cultish enough that the only people who are going to show up to a Jimmy Buffett preconcert tailgate will be able to break into “Son of a Son of a Sailor” at the drop of a flip-flop.
Parrotheads (and their children, known as “Parakeets”) often fit a narrow profile. More than likely, they’re white, middle-class baby boomers from landlocked states who may have a predilection for country music. (Buffett began his career in Nashville and relocated to Key West after recording two albums, soon labeling his style of music “gulf and western.”) Both men and women typically have a strong leather-sandal game—socks optional—and flouncy hats outfitted with an unruly mess of tropical paraphernalia. Younger members of the tribe show up wearing vented fishing shirts, Croakies, and the occasional tie-dyed doodad, but it’s only a matter of time before they slowly age into the ways of their elders.
Parrothead culture is cosplay that hasn’t quite figured out that it’s cosplay.
Food and drink are central to the ethos of Jimmy Buffett, and even the most casual fan can rattle off a handful of songs that orbit around seaside eats. There are lesser known gems like 1994’s “Fruitcakes” (Half-baked cookies in the oven / Half-baked people on the bus / There’s a little bit of fruitcake left in everyone of us) and 1970s classic “Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit” (Grapefruit, a bathin’ suit, chew a little Juicy Fruit / Wash away the night).
Boozy, bender-fuel Buffett tunes are a dime a dozen, including “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” the island exile’s lament of “Boat Drinks,” and—most recently—Buffett’s cameo on Alan Jackson’s 2003 smash, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” (Pour me something tall and strong / Make it a hurricane before I go insane).
Some of Buffett’s sing-a-long food-inclined songs are questionable (“Last Mango in Paris”—really?) but the singer is playing to what made him: the duo of tunes to which he owes his career are about carnal epicurean urges.
“Cheeseburger in Paradise” is the first and more aggressively hungry of the two, during which Buffett dreams of chowing down on a big, juicy hamburger after almost seventy days of vegetarianism:
Cheeseburger in paradise, medium rare with mustard’d be nice
Not too particular, not too precise
I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise.
It’s difficult to even hear the song’s refrain without visualizing a middle-aged Parrothead flailing around with approval like a overzealous Muppet:
I like mine with lettuce and tomato
Heinz fifty-seven and French fried potatoes
Big kosher pickle and a cold draught beer
Well, good God almighty, which way do I steer?
The gospel of the Parrothead cannon, though, is “Margaritaville”:
I blew out my flip-flop,
Stepped on a pop-top,
Cut my heel, had to cruise on back home.
But there’s booze in the blender,
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.
The song has not only come to define the beach-bum ethos of a Buffett lifestyle, but been spun off into a mini-empire of theme restaurants, resorts, and hotels. Today, you can visit a Margaritaville outpost for a bowl of Jimmy’s Jammin’ Jambalaya and wash it all down with a Fins 2 The Left (tequila and blue curaçao poured over a margarita) or a Surfing in a Hurricane (brandy, peach schnapps, Southern Comfort, red sangria, sour mix, and pineapple juice).
Unsurprisingly, the majority of drinks and dish categories derive their names from Buffett song lyrics, so Parrotheads feel as if they’re insiders at the restaurants. What was “once only a state of mind is now a state of being,” declares the Key West Margaritaville franchise, as if embracing a kind of song-based manifest destiny for a corporate chain restaurant group.
Feeling at home in a Margaritaville might be the first step towards becoming a Parrothead, but the real test comes when venturing to their natural habitat: concerts. There, the Parrotheads move in Hawaiian-shirted flocks, swarming around the stage while their well-tanned (and now significantly balding) leader whips up a whirlpool of nostalgia.
And die-hards know that the real show isn’t inside the venue—it’s what happens and what’s eaten in the parking lot. Tailgating before a Jimmy Buffett concert is a full-blown spectacle, with dozens of online message boards devoted to sharing song-themed recipes, drink mixes, and food-crafting tips. Decorations often include everything from blow-up sharks to Hawaiian leis, and it’s not uncommon for venues to issue strict tailgating regulations to ensure adventures in shrimp-grilling don’t end up setting anything on fire and, subsequently, harsh everyone’s vibe.
If football fans think their asphalt parties get out of control, they’ve obviously never gone toe-to-toe with a fifty-year-old Parrothead in a coconut bra, swigging a piña colada and singing “Barometer Soup.”
I might be a fan, but if we’re being honest, I don’t deserve full Parrothead status. I’m never going to tailgate before a show, never going to make a devoted trek to each and every Margaritaville outpost in the continental U.S. I’m—at best—just a low-level Parakeet. For me, the beauty of the Jimmy Buffett experience—both edible and audible—is that you don’t totally have to commit to island life. You can listen to “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” without waking up hungover and sunburned, and sing along to “Havana Daydreamin’” without ever truly considering a rum smuggler’s lifestyle.
The sound and occasional twenty-ounce frosty pint-glass of escapism is, for most of us, better than committing to the actual escape. Or to wearing one of those ridiculous hats.