Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White - Book Review

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2017, 368 pp., $26.99/12.99) brings style, wit, deep understanding, and insight to the story of an entertainment phenomenon that would be easy to dismiss as merely a substance infused romp through an aimless and lucky journey to riches and fame. In writing a thorough, deeply researched, and thoughtful biography about one of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries' most potent entertainment forces, White sheds light on the music industry and American culture while exploring the life of a remarkable entertainer who both represents and helped to form today's cultural landscape.

Ryan White's style is smooth, hip, and light, just as are Jimmy Buffett's singing style and take on life. Buffet, born to a longtime family of seafaring Mobile, Alabama sea captains seems to have surfed over life, while developing a take on its experience with broad and long-lasting appeal. Coming from a background of relative privilege, he discovered the joys of black blues sung by smart white guys early in his wandering college career, when he noticed that guys with guitars got all the girls, a phenomenon many have noticed. Nevertheless, Buffett seems to have done his apprenticeship as an itinerant bar and small venue musician with joy and a good deal of attention, playing the streets of New Orleans, starting and losing bands, exploring and exploiting the Nashville music scene as a song writer, plugger, and Billboard columnist, always watching and listening. Meanwhile, Ryan's jazzy, folk-rock inflected seventies and eighties tone sets the stage for an interesting and readable exploration through the life of one of America's most entertaining and gifted singer/songwriters.

White serves up Buffett's story in a light-hearted manner, making it go down as easily as tequila while maintaining a driving narrative flow. Whether it's Mobile, AL, the development of the Nashville music scene, or the discovery, founding, sale, and development of Key West to a series of joyful scoundrels, White keeps the narrative light while throwing in enough solid information along with crumbs of humor to keep the reader's eyes from glazing over. Buffett's ability to attract trustworthy and effective partners (Don Light, Tom Corcoran) and advisers while continuing to trust his own musical vision should not be underestimated. In the end, Buffett, despite seldom cracking top ten in either the song or album charts, was able to create one of the most lucrative entertainment brands in history. The book reads a lot like listening to Buffett songs, always salted with nuggets of insight and wisdom, keeping the reader's interest. Nevertheless, it's clear that White has done his homework with plenty of references and interviews cited yet never becoming pedantic.

Perhaps the most interesting elements in the book lie in the contrasts between various versons of Jimmy Buffett: the incessant partier, the driven perfectionist, the innovative wordsmith, and the able leader. His ability to move between the roles making each of them a full part of his multi-dimensional persona is what makes Buffett both believable and, sometimes, truly likeable. He managed to draw talented people to him, tap into their resources, build a musical empire and a personal fortune, and leave mostly good memories behind.

The book appeals to everyone interested in Buffett from casual fans who've enjoyed his songs while seated in a bar or in occaisonal radio plays, or a chance album purchase to dedicated Parrot Heads who follow him and the the Coral Reefers ceaselessly. They pay over a $1000 a piece for tickets, because these baby boomers and later have enjoyed Buffett, living his life vicariously while mostly staying sober and industrious, making successes of themselves, just like their hero. Sometimes the book seems to get pretty deep into the details of song development, recordings, and contracts, but it is, therefore, a Buffett feast for Parrot Heads while never becoming overwhelming for the more general reader interested in Buffett as a singer and a phenomenon.

Ryan White

Twice named one of the top writers in the country by the Society for Features Journalism, Ryan White spent nearly 16 years at the Oregonian covering sports, music, and culture. He's appeared on the public radio variety show Live Wire! as both an interviewer and an essayist. He has also written for Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Washington Post, the Portland Mercury, and Portland Monthly magazine. A perfectly OK beer league hockey player, he lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter. (Amazon profile)

In Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2017, 368 pp., $26.99/12.99), Ryan White has written a nuanced and thoughtful book that probably captures as much of Jimmy Buffett as can be fitted between book covers. Buffett emerges as a complex man who discovered he had become a “BRAND” and knew how to capitalize on that while continuing to write and sing songs keeping the brand alive. Seemingly easy going, offhand, even sloppy, he's detail oriented, fully self-aware. As I read the book, I was often unsure if I like Jimmy Buffett or not. But he emerges as a good man with a life well spent who has created a dream for others to drop into and then return to their more humdrum world. Not a bad legacy to leave and a wonderful reading experience to describe it. I received the book as a digital download from the publisher through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app.  

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