By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch
"Am I country, pop or rock and roll/I know they are related/I'll just let you be the judge," Jimmy Buffett sings on "Simply Complicated," one of 16 generous songs from his hit CD "License to Chill."
But there's no need to answer. After about 30 years of making music for his loyal army of Parrot Heads and being ignored by radio since "Margaritaville" in 1977, Buffett has come full circle: back to Nashville, where he is -- gasp! -- an influence. Just ask Kenny Chesney, aka Buffett in a cowboy hat.
Buffett has not sounded this energized and engaged in years. After the success of his duet last year with Alan Jackson on "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," it was a sure thing that he would try it again. But it is a major surprise that he has produced such a substantial and unself-conscious CD, which debuted at the top of the Billboard chart and represents Buffett's first No. 1 album.
Buffett's five original compositions -- "License to Chill," "Coast of Carolina," "Simply Complicated," "Coastal Confessions" and the wonderfully titled "Conky Tonkin'" -- stand among his best work of the past two decades. And he really hasn't changed much to make this album contemporary-country friendly beyond mixing down -- but not eliminating -- the steel drums and adding a steel guitar.
But this CD really shines with Buffett's choices of covers and duet partners. To balance the lightweight fun of Hank Williams' "Hey Good Lookin'," with Chesney, Jackson, Clint Black, Toby Keith and George Strait, he offers Bruce Cockburn's "Someone I Used to Love" with the decidedly nonmainstream Nanci Griffith.
And the rocking bombast of Will Kimbrough's "Piece of Work," with the bombastic Keith, is set off by the gorgeous "Playin' the Loser Again," written by and performed with R&B legend Bill ("Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me") Withers. Other standouts include Buffett's solo on John Hiatt's "Window on the World" and with Strait on Don Gibson's "Sea of Heartbreak."
But the song that is likely to be part of Buffett's live shows from here on out is Leon Russell's sublime "Back to the Island." It is so Buffett, it's astounding that it took 29 years for him to record it.