Jimmy Buffett’s Aspen: A look back on his five decades of quiet mountain life
The leader of the Parrothead faithful headlines Jazz Aspen on Labor Day
Jimmy Buffett’s closing set at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience on Sunday marks the music legend’s first Jazz Aspen show, but it continues a relationship with Aspen that goes back nearly 50 years.
Though South Florida beaches and boats and sunny celebrations of the good life are the mainstay of the persona he’s created in song and on stage since the early 1970s, Buffett has also more quietly embraced mountain living and skiing here.
Buffett’s time in Aspen goes back to summer 1972, according to interviews with local media over the years, when the young Mississippi-bred singer-songwriter had just one album, 1970’s “Down to Earth,” under his belt.
He spent the following three summers here as his star rose and his songs made their first appearances on the charts — including “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw)” in 1973. After those initial summer stays, Buffett bought a house, stayed for the winter of 1975-76 and learned to ski.
At the time, he was intent on splitting his time — or non-touring time, at least, as he was playing about 150 nights per year back then as his profile was growing — between the Florida Keys and Aspen, both still wild counterculture outposts at the time.
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“I have the best of both worlds,” he told Aspen Magazine in the February-March 1976 issue. “I have the mountains and the ocean — the Florida Keys and Aspen. I don’t believe in waiting until you’re 55 to enjoy your times.”
He was then 29 years old and between the releases of his film and soundtrack “Ranch Deluxe” and his 1976 album “Havana Daydreamin’.”
The house he bought was a rustic creekside two-building property in Old Snowmass that Buffett would later sell to The Eagles’ Glenn Frey, who would convert Buffett’s log-built garage and office into the famed Mad Dog Ranch Studios in 1986.
Buffett was among a bumper crop of shaggy young musicians here playing to the hippie ski bum masses and après-ski crowds in the ’70s, including The Eagles and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, many of them lured to town by the influential manager Irving Azoff, an Aspen regular and avid skier.
Buffett formed a long-running softball team in the Aspen rec league, called the Downvalley Doughboys, and landed a Corona beer sponsorship for the team. Tim Mooney, a J-Bar bartender at the time, recalled that the Doughboys got a four-case beer allotment per game and that Buffett once flew New York Yankees third baseman Craig Nettles to town to play as a Doughboy for a championship game. Their primary rival was Frey’s team, the Werewolves.
An August 1976 edition of the magazine Snowmass Affairs, previewing Buffett’s appearance at that year’s Snowmass Summer Festival — which also featured Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris and the Dirt Band — colorfully described Buffett’s on-stage presence at his early local shows: “Buffett bounces on stage like a hobo surfer healthy enough to do an orange juice commercial with his fun-tan and straw-colored hat.”
Buffett’s local backing band then, as now, was billed as the Coral Reefer Band, though with different personnel. Aspen Mountain ski instructor Mike Mooney — Tim’s brother — signed on as Buffett’s tour manager in those early days and remains so today.
Buffett’s breakthrough to super-stardom came in 1977 with the release of the platinum-selling album “’Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” and the anthem “Margaritaville.” That summer Buffett married his wife, Jane, at the Redstone Castle — renting the entire property for a three-day party. Their first child, Savannah Jane Buffett, was born at Aspen Valley Hospital in June 1979.
Though his boozy, free-living beach-bound lifestyle was intertwined with his songs, Buffett said back then that he wasn’t interested in writing about Aspen, thus differentiating himself from another local friend who happened to be the most popular singer-songwriter in the world at that moment: John Denver.
“The things I write about are people I’ve seen, places I’ve been and experiences I’ve had,” Buffett said in the Aspen Magazine interview. “But I can experience and not feel that I have to reflect about it. I wrote a song once about how all my friends are writing about Colorado, I don’t like to write about feeling free with nature. I am in Aspen to enjoy it. I feel really nice rushes on the slopes, but I don’t have to make a song about it.”
An exception to that rule would come in 1985, when he and Glenn Frey memorialized the wild caretakers’ parties at Mad Dog Ranch in their co-written “Gypsies in the Palace.”
Along with finding an enduring public friendship here with the late Frey, Buffett bonded in Aspen with locally based cultural figures like the “60 Minutes” journalist Ed Bradley, actor Jack Nicholson and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author Hunter S. Thompson, who Buffett recalled meeting in the mid-1970s.
“I lived downvalley and, through a mutual friend, I got invited over to Hunter’s house — of course I was a huge fan — and then he came down and saw my show in Denver with a bunch of guys from Aspen,” Buffett recalled in the 2007 oral biography “Gonzo,” “and we just immediately locked in.”
In 1977, Buffett, Thompson and Frey teamed for an event in the Aspen High School auditorium. Filmed by Grassroots TV — and now viewable on YouTube — the event included a Q&A by with Thompson followed by a concert performance by Buffett and Frey (which boasts an early rendition of “Margaritaville.”)
Along with playing the high school gym, Buffett performed in innumerable local venues and small festivals in those early years, known to sit in occasionally with Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson at the Aspen Inn or with touring musicians including Willie Nelson at the Holiday Inn at Buttermilk.
After he became an international star, Buffett continued playing the Aspen area and remained a regular at benefit concerts like the Deaf Camp Picnic in Snowmass, at events like Aspen Junior Golf’s High Country Shootout, Windstar Foundation events and one-off fundraisers like a 1983 concert for Colorado Senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart at Aspen Meadows.
In more recent years, he took to occasionally playing small clubs like the Double Diamond and Belly Up Aspen under the pseudonym Freddy and the Fishsticks, including New Year’s week shows in both 2005 and 2006 that raised funds for local charities.
After selling the Old Snowmass house, Buffett didn’t buy another permanent home here but came back frequently for extended stays in in rented properties in all seasons and skiing with the Mooneys each winter. Annually on Christmas night, from the mid-70s on, Buffett was part of the tight-knit group that would celebrate the holiday at actor Jack Nicholson’s home in the West End. Those gatherings — including a mix of locals along with Thompson, Bradley, Henley and visitors like Paul Simon — continued until about a decade ago when Nicholson sold the house.
Most recently, during spring 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, Buffett sent a special message and song via video to Aspen High School’s graduating class as students could not have a traditional graduation ceremony.
Referring to himself as “a child of the ’60s,” he called on the graduates to improve on his generation’s work making the world a better place.
“It’s your world out there ahead,” he told the young people, “and I have great confidence in the kids that I know and the kids that come to the shows, kids that I meet in Aspen when I’m out there, that you understand this better than we did.”