It started out like most of my trips. Why drive when I can fly? What would be a solid three hour drive without any traffic (of which there was likely to be an ample amount on Memorial Day weekend) is instead a short 50 minute flight with a great view of the Gulf Coast from Big Chief. And it was the closest to New Orleans that one of my favorite artists, Jimmy Buffett, would be coming on his summer “I Don’t Know” tour. Would I have gone if I had to drive? Probably not. I don’t like long drives. But I will take any excuse to fly!
I decided to bring a fellow New Orleans Parrothead, and our deal was he’d buy the tickets and I’d provide the transportation. We flew up the day before the concert, had lunch at Jimmy Buffett’s sister’s restaurant, Lulu’s, and then went to the famous Flora Bama. I had never been to the Flora Bama, and it proved entertaining in many ways, including thousands of bras hanging from strings all along the ceiling, downright pornographic musings written on the walls of the women’s bathroom stalls, and of course some great music and tasty drinks. It’s also the subject of Jimmy’s song “Bama Breeze” from his album “Take the Weather with You”.
On the day of the concert, we wanted to enjoy everything the infamous pre-Buffett concert tailgating had to offer, so we drove the ten minutes from our hotel near the airport to the concert venue called The Wharf, a great little amphitheater with shops and restaurants . We ran into old Parrothead friends from all over the country and made many new Parrothead friends. That’s the great thing about Parrotheads: we’re kindred souls, so it’s easy to make instant and yet lifelong friends.
The concert was my second Jimmy Buffett concert after one in Austin as part of his “This One’s for You” tour. And I only noticed that it was two years ago to the day from my second concert when I looked up the date just now to write this! The tailgating was definitely crazier and bigger in Austin, but that’s most likely because it was on a Saturday rather than a Tuesday as this one was. Mind you, I thought it would still be a huge blowout since Gulf Shores is Jimmy’s home turf and also home to his sister’s restaurant empire, also walking distance from the airport.
The concert was wonderful, and pleasant weather blessed the outdoor amphitheater. But the traffic to get out was truly mind-numbing, and we were beyond exhausted from not getting much sleep in unfamiliar hotel beds. So I was only half awake and pretty grumpy as I walked with my friend into our hotel near the airport, caught a glimpse of Mac McAnally’s unmistakable head of hair, and stopped dead in my tracks while I said “Whoa!” to get my friend’s attention. Mac McAnally is Jimmy’s long-time guitar player, but more than just being one of the legendary Coral Reefers, he’s also an eight-time winner of Country Music Awards’ Musician of the Year, a number no one else has ever matched. A musician’s musician. So to see Mac sitting there in our hotel, not a fancy hotel by any means, was quite a shock and instantly woke me up! I was walking over to shake Mac’s hand as he was standing up, and I saw he was sitting with Jimmy Buffett. HOLY MOLY! Is this really happening?!? Am I about to meet two musicians who I listen to every day and who I also admire for being gentle and kind members of the human race? My friend and I shook Mac’s hand and told him they played a great concert. I could see they were eating, so I didn’t want to interrupt (too much). I waved at Jimmy and said “Hey, Jimmy! Fellow pilot from New Orleans!” He looked me over and said “Is that your pilot uniform?” I had on a China Clipper Hawaiian shirt (because why wear just a regular Hawaiian shirt to a Jimmy Buffett concert when you can wear one with airplanes on it?), a coconut bra over my shirt, a pair of airplane Mardi Gras beads, and my Airplane Owners and Pilots Association flying cap and aviator sunglasses perched on top of my hat. So I said “Well, yeah pretty much! Gotta represent New Orleans with my airplane beads!” He said “Yeah it’s pretty obvious you’re from New Orleans.” My friend and I both commented on what a great concert it was and shyly and in shock wished them all a good night and headed towards the elevator with our mouths open.
My commentary from the second the elevator door closed to when we opened the room door: “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god!” As a writer, even I can be at a loss for words sometimes. We did, however, discuss what a random encounter it was. I mean, if it weren’t for booking this hotel solely because it was near the airport, then the traffic that we thought was a curse, and then me looking up at the last second to see Mac’s hair, we would have gotten in the elevator tired, dumb, and humming music from the concert and maybe even wondering where the band was partying at that very moment. I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to shake Jimmy’s hand, but he was in a small group of friends, and I hadn’t wanted to barge in. I was extremely thankful for the opportunity even just to set eyes on him so close, but it still felt slightly incomplete without sealing the deal with a handshake as we had with Mac.
We were filthy from the combination of sunscreen, dirt, and sweat, so I hopped in the shower for a quick rinse, and my friend took his turn after. As he was in the shower, I was hatching an idea. When he got out, I asked “Should we go back down there and offer them peaches?” There was a farmers’ market at The Wharf, and I had bought some white grapes, fresh peaches that looked delicious and perfectly ripe, and a jar of key lime curd for home. We had shared the grapes with our group during the tailgate, but we put the peaches in the car for later and for the flight home. My friend gave me a look like “Could we really?” I’m not an intruder and never want to be rude, so I second guessed my idea bigtime. But then we both agreed “Why not?” It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that I knew we’d regret if we didn’t at least try. We weren’t even sure if they’d still be down there.
Smelling a bit better now and with a fresh change of clothes, we went downstairs to gather the peaches from the rental car and saw his group had thinned out and Mac wasn’t there any longer, but Jimmy still was with a few others. Getting more nervous, we walked out to the car and got the peaches. We’d either get called out for being rude and interrupting again or these peaches could be some of the best $19 I ever spent. To combat my continued second guessing my plan, I joked “I hope Jimmy appreciates that we showered for him!”
As we walked back inside, my friend carrying the bag of peaches, one of Jimmy’s friends saw us approaching with something and asked “You brought gifts for us?” “Yes! Fresh peaches from the farmers’ market at The Wharf!” They all seemed surprisingly excited about the fresh peaches and Jimmy said those would definitely go with him on the plane. Okay. Progress. “Hey, Jimmy, what did you fly in here? I’m assuming you flew here.” He has a small collection of planes, and I was curious which was his chariot here. He said “The Falcon. It’s still out there.” I replied “Oh then it’s in great company! My plane is parked out there too!” He asked “Oh? What do you fly?” I said “I have a Seneca II.” He mentioned how they flew over the concert venue on their way in, and I told him about a rude jet pilot who cut me and another airplane off in the traffic pattern at Gulf Shores. For a second, I wondered if maybe it was his jet, but then I remembered it was a Phenom, not a Falcon. Phew! We talked a little about Lakefront Airport, my home base in New Orleans. And as we were about to leave, my friend asked if we could trouble him for a picture. The guy who had spotted the peaches as we walked in offered to take the picture. When I handed him my phone, he asked “What’s with the iPhone 2?” It’s a 5. I laughed and said “Well, I’m old school. And come on, man, it’s a 5, okay?” I wouldn’t have cared then if it were an 1888 Kodak as long as it would capture this moment because I knew if I told my friends that I had met Jimmy Buffett, they’d say “Pic or it didn’t happen.” So we got a pic of a meeting I will remember for the rest of my life, and I’m not one to normally fawn over celebrities. I pretty much don’t care about celebs unless you’re Harrison Ford, Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefers, or maybe one or two others. But I have listened to Margaritaville Radio or his songs on my playlists every day for about the past 12 years and frequently but not every day for years before that. And while I’m still considered a concert newbie, that doesn’t mean I haven’t admired him for the better part of my life. So to meet someone like that and talk about a passion that we both share was truly one of those commercial-worthy moments. I can hear it now. “Tickets to concert: $90 each. Farmers’ market peaches: $19. Getting to randomly meet Jimmy Buffett and Mac McAnally: priceless.”