Jimmy Buffett’s appeal has always been aspirational, promoting the idea that tropical beverages, island sunsets, and a life of leisure are just a snap decision away. But that image belies the singer-songwriter’s real work ethic. You could clock the seasons by his annual summer tours, and Life on the Flip Side, his 28th (!) album, is the product of concentrated effort. “I did pay a lot more attention to the writing process than I did in the past, to be honest,” Buffett tells Apple Music. “But I think that comes with having written a book and working in the musical business. I wanted to take my time and get these right.” Of course, the story ends with a satisfyingly Buffett flourish: “When it came time, we went to Key West and did these tracks in six days.” Recorded largely live with his Coral Reefer Band at his own Shrimpboat Sound studio, Flip Side will feel as comfortable as splaying out in a beachside hammock. There are ready-made lawn sing-alongs (“Down at the Lah De Dah”), ocean meditations (the gently rolling “Slack Tide”), and genial barfly numbers (“Half Drunk,” a New Orleans-flavored sonic sequel to “Pencil Thin Mustache”). It’s full of sly references to Buffett’s five-decade career (including the white sport coat on the cover) and, like much of Buffett’s later work, hugely benefits from the contributions of longtime guitarist and wingman Mac McAnally, who’s been named CMA Musician of the Year 10 times. But at 73, Buffett is also uniquely suited to provide pearls of sunburned wisdom, as he does when finding solace in “The Slow Lane” and “Book on the Shelf,” in which he reassures Parrotheads that his voyage isn’t anywhere near over. Here he tells the stories behind each of the album’s songs.
Down at the Lah De Dah "When we started this process, we were heading to Europe. I'd never played Dublin, but a lot of Irish fans would come see us in Paris and hang banners saying, 'The Irish are patiently waiting.' My Catholic guilt got big, so I went to Ireland. When you go overseas, you often work with local acts. I didn’t really know anybody at the time, but I was a big Paul Brady fan. I knew a little bit about the work he'd done with Bonnie Raitt, and that he was friends with Jerry Douglas and some friends of mine in Nashville. So I called him up and told him we were coming to Ireland for the first time, and we're looking for somebody to open. He's got that great Irish lilt and he said, 'Yeah, Jimmy, but you know, I play the Olympia, too. The last time I did it, I did 10 sold-out shows.' I started listening more to his stuff, and it's beyond what I already knew. He's an incredible songwriter. Right before we got over there, he sent me a start on 'Lah De Dah,' and I finished it, so this is our first collaboration. He wrote the Irish version of a Jimmy Buffett song."
Who Gets to Live Like This "I'm a big fan of Lukas Nelson—I knew him when he and my daughter were road rats in Texas when we were doing the Willie Nelson picnics. He's one of the great young artists, besides being somebody who I've got a real strong connection with. One day I wound up in Hawaii surfing, had this idea, and started the song. He and I couldn’t physically get together, so we were exchanging emails. I wrote part of it on Oahu and Waikiki, and he was in Maui, and we kind of went back and forth on verses, and Mac McAnally added to the end of it. We wound up actually recording him later in Shep Gordon's studio in Maui. It’s got a great history. And I’m lucky that people like what we do so much that I get to live like this."
The Devil I Know "What inspired me was Ken Burns’ Country Music PBS series. Back in that era, I was a reporter for Billboard before I got anything going, and I was covering the Grand Ole Opry. I was very aware of the very different schools of thought about country music then. There was countrypolitan, which had fewer strings in the back. And then there was Buck Owens and Merle Haggard out in Bakersfield, and I love both of those guys. I took a few devils I knew in Hunter Thompson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and a couple other people that I have had some close calls with, and put them to basically a Buck Owens Bakersfield/Palomino feel."
The Slow Lane "Mac McAnally is a by-product of Muscle Shoals, Alabama—he was like a teenage prodigy there. I've gone down and cut many things with him there, and there's a uniqueness to what comes out of it, something you simply can't explain. Will Kimbrough wrote this—he was writing about the road between Mobile and Gulf Shores, and since both of us came from around there, I visualized my version of it. That’s one of my favorite songs on the record. We cut that in one take."
Cussin' Island "That is based on a true story. I actually did [playfully strand] my children [on an island for swearing]. So I don't know if that makes me a good or bad parent. It's got a little bit of that Gilbert and Sullivan vibe—I spent a couple of years on the Escape to Margaritaville adventure on Broadway, and I love musicals."
Oceans of Time "Paul Brady and Sharon Vaughn wrote that together. I thought, 'That’s a song I wish I’d written. I couldn’t do any better than that.' Paul said, 'Well, you know, if you want to change anything.' And I said, 'There's nothing about this song I want to change. I just want to sing it.'"
Hey, That’s My Wave "I had to write a surf song! A friend of mine, Glenn Goodman, is basically my chiropractor in Sag Harbor, New York, but he’s in a surf band at night. He was playing me some stuff, and I loved the chorus. It was his story, but I messed around with it. Dick Dale had passed away about that time too, so this was kind of an homage to Dick Dale and that great guitar that he had."
The World Is What You Make It "Paul wrote this, too. I love this story—who would write a song about [the Carthaginian general] Hannibal? I was a history major, so right away I went, ‘Man.'"
Half Drunk "It’s ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw’ lite, that’s the way it felt. Will Kimbrough always sends me stuff, so when we started talking about doing this album, I reached out and said, 'What have you got?' He sent a couple things—'Slow Lane' was on there, and a couple others. But 'Half Drunk,' I just cracked up. I love that song. It takes you to that bar so much so that in the tour last year, we created a whole set around that song. That’s something about audiences: They all never think of themselves as fully drunk. They're only half drunk."
Mailbox Money "Me, Mac, and Kenny Chesney were in a booth in Nashville doing backgrounds on Caroline Jones’ 'Gulf Coast Girl.' We were just playing around, and something about mailbox money came up. My idea was to have a story about a guy who made mailbox money, but was smart enough to keep it, get out of the rat race, and go to the place he loved the best, which is a true place: Magnolia Springs, Alabama. And so he gets to be the mailman to deliver the mailbox money to his own mailbox. That was the twist."
Slack Tide "That is my favorite song on the record, and I wrote it in about 10 minutes. Being a child of the ocean and growing up on the coast, I'd played in tide pools all my life. And it seems that humanity could take a lesson from the creatures of the ocean, both the predators and the prey, because at slack tide everybody kind of swims together, and then the water starts moving and all hell breaks loose and the food chain starts. I wanted to write something that was subtle, that said, 'We ought to calm down a little bit here. We're not that different.' Maybe this pandemic will allow that to happen a little, as tragic as that is. I don't take politics on the stage. I like to be the oasis where everybody can go and have a brief moment and have fun in life before going back to whatever’s going on. But I wanted to kind of summarize that it would be nice if everybody could do that, and it would be nice if the world could run at slack tide."
Live, Like It’s Your Last Day "Last year I found myself on the Gulf Coast at the Hangout festival, invited by Kygo to do ‘Margaritaville’ with him. That was a whole new experience for me—I knew nothing about troipical house, but I found out quickly about Kygo and his ability to take people to the beach. This was inspired by listening to Kygo do his thing with his audience, and see if I can do something in that genre as well."
15 Cuban Minutes "Havana has been in my family history for a long time, and that’s kind of an expression down there: It's a lifetime, it's a day. My friend Enrique Murciano, the actor, I’ll be trying to get him to do something, and he’ll say, 'I'll be 15 Cuban minutes. It could be an hour. It could be a day.' And I went, 'I want that.' I went and I recorded the song, and then I looked at videos that people had put up of street players on the Malecon, and I wanted that street kind of groove. So I went to Enrique and I said, 'You know this, and so help me with this.' I wanted a big horn section and I wanted a big '15 Cuban Minutes.' And so that's what we did."
Book on the Shelf "When we were finishing up the album, Mac said, 'I got something I want you to hear, but I don't want to push it or anything.' This song was written by Mac's daughter Erin and [producer] Mike Utley's son Mick. So it's second-generation Coral Reefer songwriters. Mac and I did this acoustic in the studio one afternoon. It was like a little coda at the end of a musical or a book. And that chorus, I loved it, because after living through an airplane crash, and the stage fall, and being 73 and still at it, I wasn't ready to put this away. I'm looking at people up the road, and they're still out there. Charles Aznavour did it until he was 94. So that's my goal."