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Uncle Jimmy & the Sweatpants Psalms

The world is different now. We’re hunkering down. Thus far, for us Whipples, the price of that is small. I know it’s not small for everyone. The Psalms make a lot more sense these days. Our prayer is for doctors and scientists, now more than ever. In the meantime, the Spirit has been teaching me things I had forgotten.

In times of war—wars on people or wars on germs—folks squeezed by dearth of one kind or another tend to gain perspective by the bucketful. You see them start to appreciate small things. Soldiers limited to MREs come up with little recipes crafted of freeze-dried parts. Prisoners on a chain gang invent and reinvent heart-wrenching work songs out of the pieces of their former lives. Aid organization annals are full of stories of children ecstatic over eight crayons that many over-entertained kids would ignore out of hand.

I’m not saying that a time of illness and death is a good time. Pandemics are products of the Fall and—as any reader of the Book of Job knows—they are not necessarily devoid of diabolical influence. Yet part of the good the Lord wrings from such difficulties is a reminder of the sweetness of our pleasures. Hardship strips away our pretension and pettiness. Most of us have enough pettiness to spare anyway. When I was twenty, for example, I knew everything. And of the everything I knew, I knew Jimmy Buffett music was not serious art.

I remember listening to the man as a child, sitting in the back of my grandparents’ car. To me, it felt like a phase my family went through, like workout videos or weekly hibachi food. I enjoyed the Ricky Skaggs phase and the Ray Stevens phase. Then came “Fruitcakes” and “Everybody’s Got a Cousin in Miami” and “Quietly Making Noise.” I was eleven when this record came out, and my grandparents still lived off Freewill Road in Cleveland. Across the street was a cow pasture in which I don’t remember ever seeing any cows. It was somewhere I longed to roam. I always had the vague desire to vault the barbed wire and see what lay on the far side of that field. It was a Rubicon.

Jimmy Buffett did not cross Rubicons. The man made two 70s-country style records. Then he began a reefer journey of burrowing into a beach bum character he either crafted or unearthed, like an id from the depths of his banana boat soul. I sang along as a young kid, but beginning in high school, I built an ideological Babel of what was worth listening to. I labeled it Good Art. It did not include Jimmy Buffett. Nor did it include any of the top forty hits puttering out of my community’s staticky transistors. They liked Aerosmith; I liked Counting Crows. They liked Faith Hill and Limp Bizkit; I went in for Michal Hromek and Crux and Caedmon’s Call. I liked challenging lyricism and an amount of unpredictable structure. If the music was going to give me everything it thought I wanted, I didn’t care.

I'm convinced that, of all the good things we enjoy, God enjoys them more than any of us. It is not pedantic for us to remind each other of all that is good. Adam Whipple

Twenty years and four kids stripped away much of those old, arbitrary ideologies. Then last summer, in the mysterious calculus of God’s irony, my friend Ethan asked me to come play gigs with him—at Margaritaville. If you don’t know, Margaritaville isn’t just a song anymore; it’s a high-quality themed hotel. The staff wear Hawaiian shirts. They pipe a coconut sunscreen smell into the lobby even in the rain-sodden dead of February. There are real parrots in cages near the bar. I succumbed to the gig for financial reasons, and because I love hanging out with Ethan. He’s a dedicated student of whatever he puts his mind to. He had already done vast amounts of research about the son of a son of a sailor and become an armchair expert—and unlikely evangelist—for Jimmy Buffett’s songwriting. This is a guy who held staunch, informed opinions on large swaths of nineties alternative, and here he was touting the brilliance of “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” He’s my good friend, and I know better than to argue with him when he believes something that strongly. So I didn’t say anything. It took playing the shows for me to understand the appeal, though.

We’d load up our gear and drive to Gatlinburg. Seven o’clock would roll around, and we’d play our way through one cover after another: The Beach Boys, Chris Stapleton, Jack Johnson, Johnny Cash, Smashing Pumpkins, Journey, and, of course, Jimmy Buffett, to whom Ethan referred as “Uncle Jimmy.” The intimate little bar crowds ate it up. We’d get them used to the motion of the show and pull out “Sweet Caroline” or “The Weight,” highly singable group participation numbers. Peppering the set were songs by the Fruitcake-man himself: “Pencil Thin Mustache” or “Come Monday” or “Fins.” We’d even throw in sad, drink-by-yourself bits like “A Pirate Looks at 40.”

Looking at the faces of vacationers from all over the country, I started to get it. These folks came to the bar to listen to us because, for that slight moment of a major chord or a perfect rhyme, everything was alright. We got the privilege of being part of these people’s respite from bills and jobs and news cycles and neighborhood association meetings.

One of the ingrained pretensions swept away by dearth—even a forcible dearth of social contact—is that of the lofty pleasure. It is the self-involved pleasure of eating, drinking, or doing things one doesn’t necessarily like on the grounds that they are somehow higher than the simple joys of the proletariat. I’m guilty of it, of course. Kids and mortgages tend to tear down these ivory towers for me, but playing Jimmy Buffett covers helps too. The consummate ‘Gulf and Western’ singer-songwriter makes the music he wants to make, after all. He’s only been in danger of winning a Grammy twice. Both times, it was over crowd-pleaser collaborations with powerhouse country artists; it was never for his beachier tunes. Most of Jimmy Buffett’s songs revolve around simple pleasures. Like conch fritters and étouffée, these songs are comfort food.

At times like these, we could all use a little comfort food. And it’s okay.

Sure, sometimes you’re watching Dada plays Off Broadway and drinking keto coffee. Other days, you’re the people of Walmart. I’ve got news for you: the Psalms were written for the people of Walmart. They’re sweatpants psalms. They’re Oh-God-Y2K-is-coming psalms. The writers ask God to do cringeworthy things to their enemies. They’re suicidal and angry and beset by fears. And these songs are also congregational music, meant to bring us relief.

And it’s okay.

In my head, I hear Tom Hanks’ Fred Rogers from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, looking at a tacky Christmas photo and saying, “That’s a nice picture. It gives me a good feeling to see them all together like that.” It’s not a great work of art, but it does give us a good feeling. Maybe it’s not Wolfgang Puck, but it is Spaghettios, and it gives us a good feeling. Maybe it’s Jimmy Buffett, and it’s musical comfort food.

I’m convinced that, of all the good things we enjoy, God enjoys them more than any of us. The unassailable mirth hidden within sharing simple pleasures and offering them to our neighbors, be they cups of cold water or Jimmy Buffett songs, is one of the gifts most generously given to us on this mortal plane. There are many reasons to weep. There is nothing new under the sun. Even still, it is not pedantic for us to remind each other of all that is good. Enjoy, and be ye comforted.


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