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Partying With A Purpose 

And come Monday, it'll be alright

As party animals go, they're rather odd birds. Fond of flip-flops, barbecuing, and icy drinks in tall glasses, they like to congregate at the beach, drinking in the salt air and sunshine. They love traveling in flocks, and won't give a second thought to flying across the country in search of warmer climates. However, they're usually back at their jobs by Monday.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Parrot Heads -- fans of "Gulf and Western" star Jimmy Buffett, the patron saint of beach bums everywhere (and probably entrepreneurs, but we'll get to that later). However, the group -- much like Deadheads, Phish Phreaks, or any other band-monikered grouping of fans, excepting perhaps Clay Aiken's "Claymates" -- have something of an image problem.

When I asked Sandlapper Parrot Head Club President Mary Fisher what the main difference was between a Deadhead and a Parrot Head, she shot back an answer stunning in its simplicity: "We have jobs!" (And here I was thinking it was less a musical choice than one of a preference between drugs and alcohol).

Indeed, one thing echoed by every Parrot Head that I spoke to was the concept of "partying with a purpose." ("Getting drunk" doesn't count.)

"Giving back a little to our communities is what most clubs are the most proud of," says Mark McKaughn, President of Parrot Heads of the Triad. "Clubs around the US, Canada and the UK donated a total of more than $1.6 million in the year 2003 and contributed more than 365,000 man-hours to charities of all sorts."

Which is not to say that Parrot Heads are some kind of button-up, hard-drinking Key Club. Add a "West" in there, however, and you're getting a whole lot warmer.

"Parrot Heads embrace an entire lifestyle," says Charlotte Wright, Secretary of the Parrot Head Club of Charlotte, a group whose bylaws take up some 17 pages. "We decorate our homes with an eye to the tropics, often displaying Buffett memorabilia. We name our children, pets and boats after Buffett song lines. We travel to tropical destinations and plan our vacations around concerts and phlockings (regional Parrot Head gatherings). (Some) 3,000 of us gather each year in Key West for our national convention."

Comprised of some 200 clubs throughout the world, all chartered through a national parent organization, Parrot Heads in Paradise (PHiP), the Parrot Head phenomenon seems to be growing by the day. But how much of it is love for Buffett, and how much is beach fetishism? Put another way, which is the bigger draw? The Song or The Sun?

"Escapism is very prevalent among Parrot Heads," says Wright. "Most of our day jobs involve a lot of responsibility, professionalism, and often stress. While our club members' ages span (from) college to retirement, most of us are forty-something with a fair amount of hard-earned disposable income. It always brings a smile to my face when I see a respectable banker-type wearing a grass skirt, and a fin on his head!"

"My first encounter with the music of Jimmy Buffett was in 1977 at the ripe old age of 13," says McKaughn. "My brother had a 8-track copy of the Volcano album, and he played it as we drove around Myrtle Beach. I guess it was the general beach/island feel to the album and the fact that we were at the beach that hooked me. I think the fact that Buffett writes songs that are easy to understand and easy to picture in your mind speaks to people."

"My first Jimmy Buffett concert experience was as a high school senior, when I saw him open for the Eagles in 1977," says Wright. "(That was) the year "Margaritaville" was receiving radio airplay. During college I became an avid fan, listening to his older recordings."

Wright -- who says her favorite Buffett line is "Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic, but I've had a good life all the way," says that Buffett's music has had therapeutic value for her as well.

"I was in a very serious car accident when I was 17," Wright says. "I almost died. I attended my first Buffett concert on crutches. My life has been filled with residual pain and the ongoing complications of those injuries, but looking back on all the fun I've had -- and all the fun I still anticipate -- I can say that being a Parrot Head has enriched my life. I would never have met my dozen best friends without the shared love of Buffett's music."

Mindful of how the Grateful Dead became more of a rolling corporation than a concert entity towards the end of their career, I asked our local Parrot Heads how much, if any, Buffett's move from beach bum/vagabond to a multi-million dollar businessman/ restaurateur/writer has changed their view of the man and his music.

"I feel that his music over the last 10 to 15 years has moved away from that beach, sailor, explorer feel," says McKaughn. "I still like it very much, (but) it just has a different feel. I think that is why his new songs that are more reminiscent of the "Key West" years are some of the most popular among older Parrot Heads such as myself. That is one of the reasons "It's Five O'clock Somewhere" has been the hit it has been. I have a feeling that the soon-to-be-released License to Chill CD will do well because it is a departure back to the "Gulf and Western' sound that he once had."

"In this day and age, it takes money to live as a beach bum," says Wright. "Jimmy can afford such a lifestyle, but he chooses to continue writing and touring. Does he keep doing it out of fan loyalty? It would be naive to think so. He does it because he still enjoys it. We keep buying his CDs and books and going to his concerts because we enjoy it.

"As Jimmy himself says, "It's the magic of the music that still draws a crowd.' "

Jimmy Buffett will be appearing at the Charlotte Coliseum this Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $44.50-$59.50, available by calling 704-522-6500. For information on pre-concert Parrot Head gatherings, go to www.parrotheadclubofcharlotte.com/ PreConcert04.html.

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