Parrot Heads are serious about their music and their mission
What does it mean to be a Parrot Head?
The popular definition, at least according to some of the most well-known Jimmy Buffett songs, has something to do with skipping out on work and drinking on the beach all day, or at least wanting to. But scrolling through the local Parrot Head club website, it seems like there might be something more to it.
“The Galveston Bay Parrot Head Club received its charter from Parrot Heads in Paradise (the national organization)…” the website begins, with only a single parrot graphic — admittedly wearing sunglasses — in sight.
Charter? National organization? For a group that’s supposed to be all about margaritas and happy hour, the site reads more like an SEC filing than the homepage for a group of boozy beachgoers waiting for retirement. There’s a president, vice president, treasurer, communications — all the titles of any dependable corporate board are listed, and there’s even an option to sign up for the club’s newsletter.
“What you need is to talk with Pege,” Stephen Woods, communications director for the Galveston Bay Parrot Head Club said. “She knows everything there is to know; she was on the national board.”
Driving up to Pege Wright’s house in Clear Lake Shores reveals what you might expect from the home of a former Galveston Bay Parrot Head Club president and national Parrot Head club board member. The house, raised up on stilts for protection from flooding and decorated with island-aesthetic wind chimes and art, looks like the kind of place where a Jimmy Buffett fan might kick back on the deck and watch the sun set over the ocean with a drink in hand.
Signed Jimmy Buffett posters and memorabilia line the walls and the kitchen shelves display more than a few margarita glasses. Wright herself turns out to be a pensive Buffett fan, remarking over a glass of water on the meaning behind the songs and the philosophy that drew her into the club.
“When I first heard the song ‘Come Monday,’ that’s when I became a fan,” Wright said, referring to the 1974 Buffett song whose chorus contains such melancholy lines as “I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A. haze, and I just want you back by my side.”
“When the weekend’s gone and everything is still all right,” Wright said. “Everything is still normal. That’s what that song says to me. It helps me take a big breath.”
Wright comes from a corporate world. Her husband worked for Exxon, and she was an interior designer who counted Holiday Inn among her top five accounts. The lifestyle she came from could be intense, but being a Parrot Head let her forget all that, she said.
“I like Parrot Heads because nobody ever asks where’d you go to school or what sorority were you in,” she said. “They accept you at face value and move on. If you want to sit next to them, you can, and if you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to. Parrot Heads are genuine people.”
Indeed, the Galveston Bay Parrot Head Club doesn’t shy away from giving back to the community. Formed in 1995, a big part of the club’s identity is raising money for charity.
“Party with a purpose,” Wright said, going on to list the various fundraisers the club puts on throughout the year and the money it has raised. There’s the annual Alzheimer’s walk, which Wright said will raise close to $5,000 this year, as well as Riddles in the Sand, the club’s annual fundraiser-gathering that attracts hundreds of Parrot Heads to the area from all over. Also the club donates to Shriners Hospitals for Children and works with Lighthouse Christian Ministries in Bacliff.
Even though Wright is no longer on the national board and she relinquished her local presidential duties several years ago, she still serves as the fundraising director. And despite Jimmy Buffett’s former reputation as a beach-lounging partyer, the clubs, and Buffett himself, have become more business minded over the years, Wright said.
“It’s really a very high-functioning organization,” Wright said, noting there are more than 230 clubs throughout North America and Australia and the Galveston Bay chapter has more than 500 members, even though not all of them are active. “Once you join the club, then you quickly realize it’s serious.”
Of course, there’s still room for “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.”
Don Walker, another former president of the Galveston Bay Parrot Head Club, embodies more of the entertainment side of the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle, even though his professional life at NASA might not seem like it. Walker works in television operations at the agency. Plenty of people in the local club have careers you might not associate with a song like “Margaritaville.”
It might be part of the reason why Buffett’s music represents a quick escape to a beach somewhere for so many.
“You’ve got lawyers, doctors, CPAs and aerospace engineers here,” he said. “These people have got high-stress jobs and Jimmy Buffett, to me, and to them, is a three-and-a-half minute vacation. It’s the opportunity to sit there and plug him in and then suddenly it takes you some place.”
This is best illustrated at the local club’s happy hours, which take place most Fridays every month at a few different bars in the area, Walker said. The club’s various fundraisers are where work gets done, but the happy hours show off the other side of the club.
People with all kinds of backgrounds typically show up and trop rock musicians — a genre inspired by Buffett — will play tunes while everyone dances and chats, Walker said. It’s a typical happy hour, at least until “Margaritaville” starts playing.
“When they play ‘Margaritaville,’ it’s like the national anthem,” Walker said. “Everyone stands, hands over their hearts. It’s just part of the club’s thing.”
The formality can extend to Parrot Head events and gatherings, which feature badges and lanyards that some members collect. Walker himself has a plastic sack filled with hundreds of them.
“These are from Key West every year,” he said, referring to the national gathering as he began pulling out 20 years’ worth of badges one by one. “It’s right around Halloween. You get badges for everything. This is my memorial lanyard of Parrot Heads that have passed on. This one … is this Riddles in the Sand? Oh yeah, this is Riddles. These are badges from that. People just collect them and wear them. They’re like Mardi Gras beads.”
Despite the gatherings and the happy hours, Buffett’s music goes beyond escapism for Walker and other Parrot Heads. It also can be a form of therapy. Listening to some of the lyrics to songs that go further than “Margaritaville” and “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere” reveal Buffett can have a more philosophical message, Walker said. And, if you listen closely, you can get something deeper out of them, he said.
“In that three-and-a-half minutes of vacation, you can solve some of your inner conflicts,” he said. “It’s like breaking through a wall.”