Of course everybody’s familiar with Jimmy Buffett’s hit “Margaritaville” and the commercialized persona and empire he’s created from that song and a multitude of other songs extolling the virtues of the tropics and the “easy life”. Well before he hit gold, though, Buffett was a struggling folk artist in Nashville who recorded two albums with nary a tropical reference on either.
In 1970, his first album – titled “Down to Earth” – was recorded in a basement studio called Spar and released on the small Barnaby Records label. Barnaby was owned by crooner Andy Williams and named after his dog Mr. Barnaby. It was a record label that never amounted to much and was gone by the end of the 70’s. The album tanked and Buffett distances himself from it now. It doesn’t fit nicely into the “man from Margaritaville” mythology, but it’s a pretty solid collection of slightly offbeat folk, with country and pop flourishes. In reviews of the time, it earned comparisons to contemporaries John Prine and Gordon Lightfoot. It wouldn’t have had enough memorable songs to have kept it from being a footnote in music history, however, if Jimmy Buffett hadn’t reinvented himself a few years later.
The album art for “Down To Earth” was quite unique. According to the bio “Jimmy Buffett: the Man From Margaritaville Revealed” by Steve Eng, it was even “briefly considered for a Grammy award”. From the same book:
Gerry Wood supplied the photograph for the album cover. Jimmy wanted it to be titled “Jimmy Buffett Drives Religion and Politics into the Ground”. ‘So what do we do for an album cover with a title like that?’ asked Wood. His own answer, that March, had been to row up the Cumberland River with Jimmy in his ten-foot aluminum rowboat, S.S. Wood, ballasted with rum and beer. When Wood spotted some junked cars dumped on the riverbank to prevent erosion, ‘I saw the album cover. A battered old car mostly buried by debris and river residue presented itself as the perfect representation of the title concept.’
Buffett squeezed through the back window of the car, on the lookout for the water moccasins the photographer was warning him about and the photo was taken. Barnaby Records didn’t like the record title chosen by Buffett and shortened it to “Down To Earth.” The album was, according to Eng’s book, “the Nashville sound of existential angst, the singer literally half underground, on an album of mostly underground songs, cut below the street level [in Spar Studios].”
Despite the failure of “Down To Earth”, which only sold a few hundred copies on it’s release, Barnaby financed another recording session later in 1970. This resulted in a collection of songs similar to the previous album’s and was titled “High Cumberland Jubilee”, after one of the songs. It was an unfortunate title, as it wasn’t really a country album (in fact, Buffett at the time had no great affection for country music). Even more unfortunate was the fact that Barnaby, partly due to staff changes and the low sales of “Down To Earth”, lost interest in the album and didn’t issue it. They even claimed to have lost the master tapes. Conveniently, these tapes were found after the success of “Margaritaville” and the album finally came out in 1976.
Since then, these two albums have been released together in all kinds of mixed up and reordered versions, with album titles like “Before the Beach”, and “Before the Salt.”
Most of “Down to Earth” is here on Youtube.
“The Christian?” was the single, but “Ellis Dee” , “Mile High in Denver” (could have been a John Denver song), and “The Captain and the Kid” (later re-recorded) are other standouts.