As Jimmy Buffett worked on his 32nd studio album, Equal Strain on All Parts, earlier this year, he never acknowledged that it could be his final set.
“I wasn’t necessarily thinking in terms of this being the last thing he had to say, but I think, in retrospect, he probably was,” says guitarist/songwriter Mac McAnally, who has produced Buffett’s albums with his fellow Coral Reefer Band mate Michael Utley since 1997. “But he never let on. He never surrendered to what was actually happening.”
Buffett, 76, died on Sept. 1 after a four-year battle with skin cancer and lymphoma. “There were people in our organization that didn’t know he was ill,” McAnally says. “He didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for him. He just wanted to be this big ray of positivity that he always was. When I went and said goodbye to him the night before he died, he was still smiling just wider than his face.”
After they finished recording in the summer, Buffett kept tinkering with the sequencing, as McAnally realized the beloved singer-songwriter was rearranging the songs to tell his life’s journey. “When he heard the whole album in sequence, he was so proud of this one in a way that I’ve never seen him be,” McAnally says. “And that may be because he knew it was the last one and he got it right.”
The album, out today (Nov. 3) on Mailboat/Sun Records, opens with “University of Bourbon Street,” which takes listeners to New Orleans, the city where Buffett’s career began more than 50 years ago, and concludes with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique,” a country he longed to visit. In between are autobiographical songs such as “Close Calls” — which recalls some of Buffett’s real-life escapades, including getting beaten up by Sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame — and “Portugal Or PEI,” which serves as a travelogue of his wanderlust and also lyrically references past hits “Volcano” and his breakthrough song, “Come Monday.”
Moving “Bourbon Street,” which features the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, to the first slot “was the last modification to the sequencing that he did,” McAnally says. “And it ends with ‘Mozambique.’ That’s still him wanting to go the rest of the places that he never got to go. From where he started to where he intended to go. It’s a life story in between. He put so much thought into this group of songs.”
Buffett began cutting basic tracks in January at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, and then headed back to his studio in Key West, Florida, to record the vocals, working on the album between concerts until he stopped playing live in May. Though Buffett’s vocal ability sometimes wavered depending upon where he was in his medical treatments, ultimately, McAnally and Utley captured Buffett in very strong form. “I think he really sang well, from the heart, on this one,” McAnally says. “If something has to be your last thing to say, I believe this is one to be proud of.”
The 14-track album is classic Buffett, with songs representing so much of what has endeared him to generations of fans, including the humorous “Fish Porn,” written with noted author/columnist and longtime Buffett buddy Carl Hiaasen and McAnally; the easygoing, escapist “Nobody Works on Friday”; the steel-drum-lined “Ti Punch Café” (featuring Angelique Kidjo); and the reflective, yearning “Columbus.”
Buffett adds his familiar island lilt to “Mozambique.” The new rendition features Emmylou Harris, who also sang on Dylan’s 1976 version. “She thanked us for giving her a lyric sheet because she said when she sang on the original with Dylan, he wouldn’t tell her the lyrics. She was just having to watch his mouth,” says McAnally with a laugh.
Buffett, who often posted photos of his Cavalier King Charles Spaniels on his Instagram, also covered “Like My Dog,” a top 30 country hit for Billy Currington in 2011 written by Scotty Emerick and Harley Allen. “Jimmy loved his dogs more than maybe anything on earth except the show,” McAnally says.
Even though there was no talk in the studio about it being the final album, first single, “Bubbles Up,” written by Buffett and Will Kimbrough, serves as a fitting farewell to fans, with its message of hope and resilience. The song was inspired by Buffett participating in Navy SEAL training, including jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean with a weighted pack on his back.
McAnally recalls the advice the admiral overseeing Buffett gave: “’When you’re down in the water and you don’t know where you are, follow the bubbles. That’s how you get to where you’re supposed to be.’”
McAnally knew they were on to something special with the song, so much so that he prodded Buffett to replace a vocal recorded earlier in the process. “He generally doesn’t like to be pushed in the studio, and I made him go back and work on his vocal,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is too good, Jimmy. Let’s record it again and really tell the story…’ He didn’t want it to be slick and polished, he wanted it to sound like a bunch of people around a campfire figuring out what’s important about life.”
When McAnally played Buffett the revised version, “He smiled as big as he’s ever smiled on the happiest day of his life, but tears just rolling,” he says. “He was like, ‘This is so good. Thank you.’”
“Bubbles Up” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Rock Digital Song Sales chart for the week ending Sep. 14, according to Luminate. It also started at No. 2 on the Country Digital Song Sales chart. Earlier this week, CMT debuted the emotional video, which includes footage spanning Buffett’s adult life and his love for spending time on the water and on the stage.
On a lighter note, the album also includes “My Gummie Just Kicked In,” a song inspired by a line Paul McCartney’s wife, Nancy, jokingly said after she tripped while she and McCartney were out to dinner with Buffett and his wife. McCartney plays bass on the track. Buffett flew to Los Angeles in June to be with McCartney in the studio, while McAnally advised remotely.
“Paul wrote himself out a very detailed Paul McCartney chart to play the song. He put a lot of work into it,” McAnally says. “It’s very rare that someone can go in by themselves and overdub on a track that’s already been recorded and add energy to it, but Paul McCartney played bass on that track like a 20-year-old Beatle. It’s unbelievable.”
The title track, written by Buffett and McAnally and inspired by a saying from Buffett’s grandfather, reveals the secret to a good nap is making sure one’s body weight is equally distributed. “It takes a second to realize he’s talking about something good,” McAnally says.
Cameras captured the recording process and a few behind-the-scenes videos have already rolled out. McAnally says it’s possible that a documentary on the making of Equal Strain could be forthcoming. “It will be the final complete project,” he says of the album. “Since we have quite a bit of content that arose from it, I think they’ll probably make use of that because there’s never a bad time to see that smile on his face.”
Buffett didn’t leave a lot of music in the vault, but McAnally says there are some existing tracks he’d also love to see released. There were only two songs recorded for Equal Strain that didn’t make the album, but, “We have a few things over the years of Jimmy that are really good,” he says. “There can be a posthumous release, but it will be just literally a collection of things that we did and we never put out for whatever reason. He’s got a gorgeous version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Amelia.’ I can’t believe we didn’t put it out when we recorded it.”
McAnally says Buffett’s wish was for the Coral Reefer Band, who backed Buffett in various iterations since the ‘70s, to continue. “The Coral Reefer Band is second family to all of us. We are a family. And Jimmy wants us to continue and we want to continue,” he says. “There’s ongoing discussions about the best way to do that, the most practical way to do that and how to do it in a way that is worthy of the legacy that we’re part of.”
In the immediate future, McAnally will take part in a tribute to Buffett on Nov. 8’s CMA Awards. The salute will also include Zac Brown Band, Kenny Chesney and Alan Jackson, three acts that he’d recorded with and were deeply influenced by him.
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