Meet the Parrot Heads: Jimmy Buffett megafans find Margaritaville in Minnesota

Jimmy Buffett, seen here in his beloved Florida, waves to adoring Parrot Heads.

Jimmy Buffett, seen here in his beloved Florida, waves to adoring Parrot Heads. AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Rob O’Neal

In 1977, a musician from Key West named Jimmy Buffett released his seventh album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.

The LP spawned a hit single called “Margaritaville,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100 and topped the Easy Listening chart. It’s a marimba-laced folk-rock song that manages to be wistful even while wearing a shit-eating grin. At the time of its release, the song may have appeared destined for the one-hit-wonder dustbin of rock history. Obviously, that’s not what happened.

Instead, Buffett turned “Margaritaville” into not only a meal ticket, but also a legacy career and a full-blown lifestyle brand, with hotels, restaurants, alcohol lines, food, books, even shoes. Forbes estimates the 69-year-old’s annual earnings at $40 million, placing him at No. 66 on 2016’s richest celebs list. Less documented, however, is what Buffett has given a group of uniquely devoted fans: a home.

They affectionately call themselves Parrot Heads, and they celebrate Buffett’s entire body of work. In contrast to the permanently stoned reputation of Deadheads, the O.G. obsessive fanbase of the Grateful Dead, Parrot Heads have a corporate structure headed up by Parrot Heads in Paradise (PHIP). Parrot Head clubs pay dues.

They are not only Buffett buffs, but also an international charitable organization, with 200-plus chapters across the planet. Think of them as a rock ’n’ roll Rotary Club, all clad in Hawaiian shirts. Their slogan? “Party with a Purpose.”

Minnesota has two official PHIP chapters: the St. MinneSomePlace club in the Twin Cities, and the Lakes Area Parrot Heads based in Detroit Lakes. To better understand Parrot Heads, we spoke to several members of St. MinneSomePlace club, as well as Robert “Bob” Burtis, whose band Bob and the Beachcombers released the 2009 Buffett tribute/parody album Welcome to Minnesotaville!

Parrot Heads dance at the HAMA of 2011

Parrot Heads dance at the HAMA of 2011 Jeffrey Hage

The Parrot Heads of the St. MinneSomePlace club throw two major events each year. These shindigs are known in Parrot Head parlance as “PHlockings.” One of them, the annual Holiday/Anniversary and Members Appreciation Phlocking (HAMA for short), is set to descend upon the Americas Best Value Inn in Shakopee on November 12. Bob and the Beachcombers are headlining. Yes, there will be a “Buffett Buffet.”

John Sherwin, who serves as “bartender” (aka social director) for the St. MinneSomePlace Parrot Heads, has attended 17 HAMAs since the event launched in 1994, five years after the first P-Head club sprang up in Atlanta.

“It’s one of the longest-running continuous functions of any Parrot Head club in the country,” Sherwin says of HAMA. “It’s in the top five.”

Bob Burtis of the Beachcombers recalls adding Buffett’s material to his band’s previously Beach Boys-focused set in the mid-’90s, as Parrot Head clubs began to proliferate.

“We started getting requests for ‘Margaritaville,’” he remembers, “and the Parrot Head contingent was coming out of the woodwork.”

Jeff Hage, a community newspaper editor in central Minnesota, counts himself among St. MinneSomePlace’s 250-strong membership. He’s served as a Parrot Head club president, and he founded the Chippewa Valley Parrot Head club in western Wisconsin.

Hage joined his first Parrot Head club around 2000, while living in Des Moines, but his Buffett fandom goes all the way back to 1977. That’s when his father, who loved “Margaritaville” on the radio, bought home a copy of Changes in Latitudes. Hage was hooked.

Since that Buffett baptism, he’s seen the singer live 40 times. Hage attended his 39th show in St. Louis, only to find out Buffett would be playing again in Kansas City two days later. Naturally, he made the drive.

One of Hage’s early Buffet memories goes all the way back to a middle-school party. One of his classmates nursed a fondness for Buffet’s then-current hit “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” off 1978’s Son of a Son of a Sailor.

“I got invited to the hottest eighth grade Catholic [school] party going on in south Minneapolis because I owned the album,” Hage remembers. “I got to bring it, and she could play ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ at the party, so that there was enough to make me a fan for life.”

Mike Shaughnessy, the current “head bwana” (aka president) of St. MinneSomePlace, fell for Buffett after a sort of trial by fire. Years ago, Shuaghnessy’s former boss took him and three co-workers on a boat trip on Lake Michigan. The entire soundtrack came from a Discman loaded with three Jimmy Buffett CDs.

“By the time we were done with that three-day trip, I didn’t care if I ever heard Jimmy Buffett again,” Shaughnessy says. “Like, I don’t ever want to know anything about him.”

Later on, Shaughnessy found himself buying Buffett’s greatest-hits collection. He’s now seen Buffett 12 times.

To an outsider, Buffett might seem a strange object for intense devotion. He isn’t critically lionized, but he’s also far too successful to be an overlooked gem, a la his pal Jerry Jeff Walker. He spent the mid-’70s developing his grinning beach-bum persona and touring hard, clocking the occasional minor hit.

Parrot Heads by the pool at the HAMA of 2011

Parrot Heads by the pool at the HAMA of 2011

Once “Margaritaville” broke, though, Buffett was savvy enough to recognize it could be the thesis to his career, giving a name and an anthem to beach culture. He built an empire around it. Parrot Heads aren’t bothered that Buffett’s milked his cash cow to infinity and beyond. Hage says he admires the singer’s entrepreneurial sense — he suckles the salt-rimmed teat.

“I’m a craft beer guy,” Hage says, “but if I’m getting a mainstream something at the liquor store, or at a bar, without even thinking, I’m going to buy a six-pack of [Margaritaville Brewing Company’s] Land Shark, you know what I mean? And at the store, I buy the Margaritaville food.”

The complete devotion of the Parrot Heads brings to mind the working-class ideals of another act from a totally different world: the Minutemen. “Our band could be your life,” the ’80s DIY punk heroes sang. And really, what phrase better describes the act of buying, say, frozen shrimp named for your favorite song?

Minutemen track “Maybe Partying Will Help” could be a slogan for the Parrot Heads’ charity work. The St. MinneSomePlace club’s other big annual PHlocking is called “This Hotel Room” (after a song Buffett co-wrote with Steve Goodman), and the money is funneled to local charities.

"We try to get the smaller [charities] in the metro area,” Shaughnessy says.

They’ve given to Prism Thrift Shop, the Minnesota Zoo’s World of Birds, and the Store to Door program, among others. HAMA serves as the club’s holiday party, and in the spirit of the season, members bring toys to donate to Toys for Tots.

“We’re not margarita-drinking, always-intoxicated partiers,” Hage says. “We’re just good people doing good things, who kind of do it in the name of that island lifestyle.”

Let's say you wanted to hop the Buffet bandwagon. Where do you start with Buffett, whose career is more than 30 albums deep?

The Parrot Head consensus is with his greatest hits collection, Songs You Know By Heart, also known as the "Yellow Album," Sherwin says. Hage likes to call it Songs You Play to Death. Shaughnessy and Hage both cite Changes in Latitudes… as another favorite, and Hage adds 1989’s glossy Off to See the Lizard as a close second.

"My third favorite is any other one you listen to," Hage jokes. 

Sherwin cited early albums, like 1973’s A White Sportcoat and a Pink Crustacean, where Buffett began transitioning from country to his tropical take on soft rock, and 1974’s A1A, among his personal favorites.

It’s worth noting that P-Heads don’t fawn solely over Buffett. Since JB’s concerts are expensive and infrequent (his last Twin Cities gig was in 2013 at Xcel Energy Center), they’ve discovered or created other outlets. Many support an entire Buffett-indebted genre known as “trop rock.”

Broadly, trop rock is music about “living the island lifestyle, the stereotypical laying in a hammock, drinking your favorite umbrella drink under the sun,” Hage says. The genre lives outside some of the norms of the modern music industry, and Parrot Heads often book trop rock musicians to play house shows. 

Trop rock has pretty porous stylistic borders, evolving over time and with Parrot Head whims. Journeyman singer-songwriters populate the house shows, but larger acts can earn the Parrot Heads’ love through association, however passing, with Buffett.

Artists who’ve received the Buffett bump include the Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, whose hit “Five ‘O’ Clock Somewhere” featured Buffett. Notable trop rockers, per Hage and Sherwin, include Hugo Duarte, Brent Burns, Kelly McGuire, and Mark Mulligan. 

“In most cases these are people that 95 percent of the public has never heard of,” Sherwin continues, noting that most trop rockers play originals, not Buffett covers. “But yet when you hear them live you realize just how good they are.”

Sherwin frequently hosts or helps organize trop rock house shows for the Parrot Heads of St. MinneSomePlace. When he first started trying to book shows, acts were wary of coming so far north, since many are based in Florida or Texas.

Luring trop rockers with the promise of multiple shows helps. Musicians will often make their way up through Iowa, playing for Parrot Head clubs there, then play at Down South Bar & Grill in New Germany, Minnesota, a favorite haunt of St. MinneSomePlace club members, and then play a house show or two to ice the cake.

The disconnect between Buffett’s music and frigid Minnesota isn’t lost on our state’s P-Heads, who talk up the genre’s transformative qualities.

“You can forget about your own life for awhile,” Shaughnessy says, “just kick back and listen to the Caribbean life.”

Hage remembers a scene from the HAMA of 2011 during a major blizzard.

“You’ve got this total whiteout of a storm coming down while we’re all inside dressed in our Hawaiian shirts and drinking our margaritas,” he recalls. “No way was it winter that night. Above everything else this is all about friendships, and that’s important whether it’s summer or winter.”