Jimmy Buffett Discusses License to Chill (First of Two Parts)

New Album Features Strait, Jackson, Keith, Chesney, Black, McBride and Others

Jimmy Buffett’s new album, License to Chill, arrives in stores Tuesday (July 13). With guest appearances from George Strait, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Clint Black, the album has already netted a Top 10 country hit with their remake of Hank Williams’ classic “Hey, Good Lookin’.” License to Chill also features separate duets with all five of the superstars, along with Buffett’s other collaborations with Martina McBride, Nanci Griffith and Bill Withers.

Buffett recently sat down with CMT News to talk about the new album and what it takes to Buffetize a song. In the second part of the interview — running Tuesday –Buffett talks more about the creative process that led to License to Chill.

You recruited quite a few country artists for duets.

George [Strait] came and was the first person to commit when I was doing this project down in Key West. … Actually, I had been planning on doing a record like this anyway before Alan [Jackson] called me to do “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” Alan had cut some of my songs. I knew George from days in the Bahamas fishing. We had always talked about getting together and doing things. So, I kind of called my friends, and then they all showed up, and George was the first one. He does a great old Don Gibson song called “Sea of Heartbreak,” and I kind of Buffetized it a little bit. (laughs) They were the first two guys that we had talked about doing it because I had seen them again at the [CMA] awards show. It was kind of a succession of things that actually eventually led to this. I like it when that happens. In this business today, that seems to be all premeditated, and everybody is afraid to go shoot from the hip. I still do — and it still works.

Does shooting from the hip ever get you in trouble?

Yeah. It does get me in trouble occasionally. (laughs) But at this point in my career, it’s kind of fun because I got away with it. I try to control myself a little more, but I’ve certainly had a good time kind of staying on the fringes of things and relying more on performing than I ever did on radio. So, it’s kind of ironic to me to be on the radio now. I don’t know who’s getting a bigger charge out of it — me listening to myself on the radio or my kids hearing me on the radio. It’s a new thing for me after all these years.

And you got the industry recognition, too, with the vocal event wins at the 2003 CMA Awards and 2004 ACM Awards.

It’s kind of full circle. I spent a lot of time in Nashville attempting to do … what was termed crossover in those days. It just wasn’t the time, and it wasn’t right. I seriously don’t think I’m doing much different — other than I may be thinking a little more and being more selective when I look at material. I took myself out of the production side of things, which can drive me crazy. I just don’t want to wear that many hats. I’d rather just sing. I have such good people around me that are much more talented than I am who I rely on for this — as an example, Mac McAnally and Michael Utley, who produced this album. Again, they both have lived and worked in Nashville for 20 years and again [are] respected by writers and people in the business but maybe not as known to the general public. I would be very delighted if that changed as a result of this album. I’m pretty set, to tell you the truth. I’m having a good time doing this, and it’s a delight for all of this to happen. But I haven’t changed much, and it could change them and get the recognition that I truly feel they deserve.

Why did you want to include the Hank Williams classic, “Hey, Good Lookin'” on the album?

If anybody, Hank Williams has to be the default songwriter of songwriters. Whether you’re a country singer or whether you’re any kind of a writer, to me, it’s Hank Williams. My parents — I grew up in south Alabama — weren’t necessarily country fans. My mother was more a Frank Sinatra fan, and my dad listened to kind of Cajun music from his family. There was always Hank Williams in their record collection. I’m so old that I had to grow up listening to my parents’ record before the 45 [rpm single record] came around. Then, you got your Elvis record. Until there was Elvis, Hank Williams was in my house. I remember doing that song or loving that song when I was about 8 years old — “Hey, Good Lookin’ “and “Jambalaya” — and I would sing them at parties and stuff that my mother would have. I was so closely attached to those before I even seriously considered anything about being a musician or writer. Even back in those days, when I first started out, that song [and] two or three others were always a part of a repertoire when I was playing bars and lounges and everything else. And not being able to do my own material, “Hey, Good Lookin'” was in there. It was always a crowd-pleasing song.

Everybody went just right for it, and with that arrangement, which we borrowed from all those kind of wonderful people we had in there, we just decided to put a little bit of a we call it Buffettizing. (laughs) We kind of take material that are great songs. We don’t change anything. There’s no chord changes. There’s no modulation. There’s nothing. We will set a tempo and a groove that probably is more of a result of playing it live in front of fans and the energy that our shows run at. When I go in to make an album, I think of an album as a set in front of a live audience. That’s the only way I’ve ever thought about it. I pace it like that. I try to put energy levels in a record the way I do in a show. I couldn’t think of anything better to kick off an album that this finally resulted in the 16 or 17 songs that we cut. It was like the opening song of the set to me. I went back, and I said this is very full circle for me without it being, “Oh, I’d like to thank Hank Williams.” Of course, we would.

The unique side of the Hank Williams story to me is that many years ago when I was in Nashville, I was a reporter for Billboard magazine because I couldn’t get a job singing. I had a college degree, which was something you didn’t go to Nashville with in those days. (laughs) Thank God, a dear friend of mine named Bill Williams hired me at Billboard magazine to be a writer. During that time, my mother worked — my mother always worked — she worked at a shipyard in Alabama, and she sent me a package one day. And she said, “I think you’ll get a kick out of this.” Hank Williams had worked at that shipyard in 1942 as a welder, and it was his employment file and his job application because … I guess he didn’t get drafted. He had some kind of medical ailment so he didn’t join the Army during the second World War, but he worked as a welder. And it was his file with his picture in it and his handwritten job application. And I love the fact of it that it said “occupation,” and it had in his penciled handwriting “welder/musician” — and “musician” was spelled wrong. (laughs) When my mother passed away last year, my niece gave me some things, and that folder came back up. So, I kind of did it for her.