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Jimmy Buffett Rediscovered

<B>Steve Kroft</B> Talks To The Singer About His Recording Empire

You won't see him on MTV, and until he turned up at the top of the charts this summer, he hadn't had a Top-10 hit since the Carter administration.

So who is Jimmy Buffett?

Well, if you've ever thought about chucking it all and running off to the Florida Keys or the Caribbean, you probably know who Jimmy Buffett is.

For the uninitiated, he is a singer, performer and one of the top concert draws in the country. He is also the author of three best-selling books. But don't let his persona as the poster-boy for midlife crisis fool you. As Correspondent Steve Kroft first reported in 1997, Jimmy Buffett is the mogul of Margaritaville.

He's 50 years old, a little round in the middle and a little thin on top -- an unlikely music star.

But watch him perform his signature song, "Margaritaville," before a crowd of more than 20,000, and you could mistake Buffett for the leader of some strange tropical cult. They call themselves Parrotheads and dress in bizarre ceremonial garb. They know all the hymns by heart.

Their sacramental drink is tequila, Cointreau and lime juice with a little salt around the rim of the glass. And they wait for Buffett to transport them to a mythical tropical paradise called Margaritaville.

"It's been wonderful for me, and I feel so privileged to have fans that are that loyal," says Buffett. "But on some days, I want to go to them and, 'Get a life,' you know? It's just made up, you know?"

Margaritaville may just be a state of mind, but Buffett has transformed it into an industry. Several years ago, Forbes magazine put Buffett's earnings at $26 million, ranking him between Tom Clancy and Robin Williams in show-business income. Beneath the shorts and the T-shirts and flip-flops beats the heart of anything but a beach bum.

He says he's a workaholic. "I know so many people hate their jobs," says Buffett. "And I love my job. I really do. And it gets more exciting every day."

Buffett grew up the son of a son of a sea captain in Mobile, Ala., where his parents worked in the shipyard. He paid his way through the University of Southern Mississippi, playing guitar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and graduated with a degree in journalism. He even worked as a reporter for Billboard magazine in Nashville before landing his first recording contract and drifting south to Key West. There, he mixed with marijuana smugglers, writers and an assortment of cultural pirates.

His personal life is fairly tame now. Buffett says he gets up about the time he used to go to bed. He has three kids, and his wife, Janie, keeps a pretty close eye on him.

Some one million fans show up for his concerts each year. They typically arrive hours early and typically set up camp in the parking lot. Some bring their own beaches with them and portable generators to run the blenders. They come in all ages and all sizes - boat owners, bartenders, lawyers and accountants - who tear off their ties, tie on grass skirts and stick a fin on the car to spend a few hours living the life that Buffett sings about.

"People in high-pressure situations and high-pressure jobs use it as an escape [from the] rigors of life," says Buffett. "I think escapism is something that, you know, if you said 'Back to what your job is,' I sell escapism."

Walk down any dock, or anywhere there are palm trees, a bar, or a jar for tips, and you can hear someone slurring his lyrics.

"There's some good ones and there's some really bad ones. I take it as the ultimate compliment," says Buffett. "It's an anthem of some sorts. I never wrote it in six minutes. It was just another song. Just another song going on the album, you know? That's the way I looked at it. And then, never in my wildest dream did I ever think it would do what it did. Never."

Those wild dreams may have been enough for anyone but Buffett. For him, it was just a beginning -- all of which makes you wonder, what drives Buffett?

"I can only say the first thing that pops into my mind is I remember, years ago, seeing kind of a has-been country singer working - when I first moved to Nashville - in a bar in a Holiday Inn," says Buffett.

"And it was obvious that it had been somebody that'd been there and come back down, and I never wanted to make that run back down. 'Remember me back in 1977? I had this one hit, "Margaritaville."' I did not want to be one of those people."

Well, Buffett is not doing the cocktail lounge circuit. And if you can believe it, life has gotten even sweeter for this tropical troubadour.

Since the first 60 Minutes report back in 1997, Buffett has continued to pack concerts with hundreds of thousands of Parrotheads. He's still writing books, and he's set to release his latest this fall – a novel called "A Salty Piece of Land."

But that's just the beginning. If you ask Buffett what's new, he'll tell you, with all the humility of a southern schoolboy, not much.

"Well, I'm still here. Didn't have to go to rehab, and I'm not broke," says Buffett, laughing. "I made it through the 'Behind-the-Music' thing. I'm still here."

Buffett has done more than simply steer clear of bankruptcy and rehab. In fact, he may be bigger now than ever before. Kroft caught up with him at a small airport where he keeps one of his toys, an antique World War II era bi-plane.

"I can get up from this thing and just go around and just be by myself," says Buffett. "And it really is quality time."

And it's quality time he can use these days. The past year has been a whirlwind of success that started innocently enough when a friend, country music superstar Alan Jackson, asked Buffett for help recording a new song called "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."

"I went in the studio, I literally was there about 20 minutes," recalls Buffett. "I sang for a total of 24 seconds on the record. And it became this huge hit."

The song spent weeks at the top of the country music charts and was so successful that it received the Country Music Association award for Vocal Event of the Year.

For the first time in his 37-year career, Buffett accepted a CMA award. "I didn't know how to act, because I'd never been to anything like that before. I've never won anything for anything. I never won a talent contest," says Buffett, laughing. "I didn't know what I was gonna say, other than I was gonna thank my wife first. And not forget that one."

On the heels the CMA award, Buffett recruited some of the biggest names in country music to help out on his latest record, "License to Chill." Its success took everyone by surprise when it debuted on the charts at No. 1.

"At 57, to have a No. 1 album, I wasn't expecting it," says Buffett.

The record quickly went platinum. And if that isn't enough, Buffett closed out his summer tour this year with two sold-out shows at Boston's legendary Fenway Park.

So, if you're looking for Buffett these days, you might not find him "wasting away in Margaritaville." But you will find him savoring every swig of his latest success. The man who just might be the king of the kicked-back lifestyle has no plans to surrender his crown anytime soon.

"I always said that I wouldn't use a teleprompter, and if I start to sing real flat, I'll hang it up," says Buffett.

"So it could happen and it could. Am I having fun doing it? I'm having more fun now, as long as that continues. I don't have a hard work schedule. It's Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays still. And Sundays and Mondays off, and see you in your local town."