For trop rock artist, soggy Northwest is always sunny

The rain is sheeting down on a chilly fall night in land-locked Kent, and Dave Calhoun is about as far as he could be from a tropical paradise.

Dressed in shorts, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt, guitar in hand, Calhoun is belting out music more befitting of Margaritaville than a suburban coffee shop in the soggy Northwest.

“I’m going to bring a little summertime to you right now,” says Calhoun, before launching into another tropical tune during a recent show at the Kona Kai Coffee House.

During his three-hour show, Calhoun sings about boats and beer, babes and beaches, spinning tales of a carefree existence in a summery Shangri-la. The set includes several Jimmy Buffett tunes, prompting the audience of about 20, which includes a few of Calhoun’s Hawaiian-shirted friends, to sing along.

Calhoun is a true believer, one of a handful of musicians around the country who play tropical rock—or “trop rock,” as it’s known among fans. In this rain-soaked outpost, he’s one of the few carrying the tropical torch through the gloomy grey of winter. Calhoun, 57, bills himself as the only Jimmy Buffett tribute act in Washington state and says to his knowledge, he’s the only musician in the region playing strictly trop rock.

And he believes there’s enough demand here for trop rock to turn his passion into a profession. In August, Calhoun quit his job as a yacht broker for Sunset Yachts in Gig Harbor to pursue his music full-time. He plays at bars and parties, restaurants and boating events, such as this year’s Lats & Atts party in Poulsbo, to enthusiastic audiences.

“People like Jimmy Buffett, and I’ve really created kind of a niche market,’ he says.

But the Northwest isn’t exactly known as a hot spot for sunny music. Local tastes in pop and rock music tend toward the dark and damp. “Carefree” isn’t a label most people would affix to music of Northwest stars such as Nivrana and Death Cab for Cutie.

Trop rock seems oddly out of place in the chilly Northwest. And that’s exactly why people like it, Calhoun says.

Known as "parrot heads," trop rock fans say the music provides an escape from the daily grind.

Known as "parrot heads," trop rock fans say the music provides an escape from life's stresses.

“If it’s cold and rainy and snowy, what better than to be sitting in a bar and listening to scenes about beach music—a Corona in your hand, toes in the sand type of stuff?” Calhoun says. “I’ve been in sales almost all my life and that’s really what I sell, escapism.”

Kathy and Phil Pompeo understand the appeal. The husband and wife, who have a Caribbean-themed bar with bright yellow walls in the basement of their house in SeaTac, are self-declared “parrot heads,” the term commonly used to describe Jimmy Buffett fans. Members of Parrot Heads of Puget Sound, they say trop rock provides a respite from the stress and drudgery of daily life.

“Most of us are really hard workers,” says Kathy, 48. “I’m in law enforcement and Phil’s an engineer. We work really hard all year long. This is a way for us to escape.”

“Margaritaville is a state of mind,” she says, referring to the 1977 single that made Buffett famous—and very rich. “Most of us have been sitting on a beach somewhere at some time. You hear this music and it takes you back there.”

Trop rock also takes its fans, many of them baby boomers, back to a more carefree time, says Phil, 57. “We get to that age when that inner child in us stops dancing. We start to worry, ‘Are people going to make fun of me?’ Well, who cares?”

Buffett and boating

In many ways, trop rock was a natural fit for Calhoun. He grew up on the water in Port Madison on Bainbridge Island, in a house with its own dock and boathouse. Summers were spent cruising on the family’s 36-foot cabin cruiser and Calhoun’s late father, Bruce Calhoun, was the Northwest editor and manager of Sea Magazine.

Calhoun took piano lessons as a child and got his first guitar at age 9. He got turned onto Jimmy Buffett by a friend in the late 1970s and taught himself to play a few Buffett tunes. While working as the harbormaster at Deer Harbor on Orcas Island during the 1990s, Calhoun began noticing how many boaters were into Buffett and realized how prevalent nautical references were in his music.

“I starting figuring out that Buffett and boating are really connected,” Calhoun says.

That realization deepened Calhoun’s appreciation for Buffett’s music, but he wasn’t yet ready to launch his own trop rock career. During the ‘70s, Calhoun did solo gigs and played in a Top 40 duo dubbed Dave and Dena (“her name was actually Trudy”). But there were so many bands around and the competition was so stiff, Calhoun says, that he decided to take a break from the music and focus on his career.

Audience members sing along to a Jimmy Buffett tune.

Audience members sing along to a Jimmy Buffett tune.

A turning point came in the mid-1990s, when Calhoun bought his first computer and got online. By then a diehard parrot head, Calhoun discovered that there were other trop rock musicians playing the type of music he loved. He began connecting with them and learning their songs, “and all of a sudden I had a 200-song set list.”

Calhoun started playing trop rock professionally in 2003 and has released two independent CDs that include some of his original music. He’s a one-man act, with back-up tracks recorded on his home keyboard and played via his iPod.

Most other trop rock musicians around the country also operate independently, recording and releasing their own CDs without record label contracts or distribution deals. But a South Carolina couple has made it their mission to see that trop rock gets its due.

Michelle and Tom Becker are the founders of the Margarita MAFIA (Musicians Artists Fans In Alliance), a website devoted to promoting trop rock artists, radio stations and events. They also started the annual Trop Rock Music Awards, held for the first time last year, and perform in their own trop rock band, Latitude.

“Trop rock is a niche music,” Michelle Becker says. “But so is blues, so is Hawaiian music. Our goal is to bring trop rock up to those levels, to be as well-known so people can say it as easily as they can say rap or hip-hop or grunge or heavy metal.”

Becker says trop rock has remained an independent genre largely because trop rock artists don’t get the same airplay as musicians playing other types of music. Since trop rock spans various musical styles, she says, it’s difficult to categorize and listeners might not recognize it when they hear it.

“There are a lot of people that would go see a Jimmy Buffett concert and have no idea that there are other acts all around the country that are performing similar music in the same style and it’s called trop rock,” she says.

In the absence of a formal industry, trop rock musicians have formed a supportive community of artists who share their music with one another and hire each other for gigs, Calhoun says.

“All the guys who play on the sunburn circuit are very supportive of each other,” he says. “Part of my mission is to educate other people about all these great musicians that I’m just so enthusiastic about.”

Party with a purpose

Though trop rock may depict a lackadaisical existence, its founding father is anything but a beach bum. Jimmy Buffett has spun a fantasy of sun-soaked freedom into a highly lucrative enterprise. He’s written best-selling novels, started two restaurants chains and was named by Vanity Fair last year as among the top 100 influential people in the world.

The Margaritaville café on the Las Vegas strip is said to be the top-grossing eatery in the nation, and Buffett’s annual income is estimated at more than $40 million.

Dave Calhoun gets the audience on its feet during a recent show.

Dave Calhoun gets the audience on its feet during a recent show.

Calhoun may not be making quite that much, but his appreciation of the music is rooted in something deeper than a paycheck. He loves how evocative trop rock is, loves its use of imagery and storytelling to create vivid scenes about carefree days spent on beaches and boats.

“These songs all tell stories that I can relate to,” he says. “They have to do with boats, for one thing, and I love boating. I love everything to do with that.”

But for Calhoun and other parrot heads, it’s not just about escapism. It’s about making a difference. Parrot Heads in Paradise Inc., the international umbrella organization of parrot head clubs, is a nonprofit organization focused on furthering community and environmental concerns. Operating under the creed “party with a purpose,” the organization’s 236 parrot head clubs worldwide have donated $16.4 million and 2.3 million volunteer hours over a seven-year period.

Efforts by the Puget Sound group have included collecting items for the food bank, painting houses for seniors and holding a fundraiser for a club member who’s fighting breast cancer.

“The parrot head nation really takes care of its own people,” says Calhoun, who’s currently the membership director for Parrot Heads of Puget Sound, which has around 210 members.

Phil Pompeo says while members of parrot head clubs are initially attracted by the music, they typically share an altruistic ethos. “It’s not just about the music. It’s about how you live your life,” he says. “The people who do this work are really good people. They’ve got hearts as big as Texas.”

A match made in Margaritaville

Calhoun lives in Tacoma and cruises with wife Marcia on their 25-foot Catalina, Banana Wind, named after a Buffett song. The couple grew up across the water from each other in Port Madison and went to school together. They went on a date in high school, then drifted apart and went their separate ways.

More than 30 years later, Calhoun was playing at the Tides Tavern in Gig Harbor and noticed a woman in the audience smiling at him. He walked over and asked if they knew each other. “Dave,” she said, “it’s Marcia from high school.”

Six months later, in 2006, the couple was married on a beach in San Carlos, Mexico, in an evening ceremony under a full moon. “It was the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” Calhoun says.

The couple plans to buy a bigger sailboat and cruise long-distance after they retire, in about eight or nine years.

“I’d like to spend about a year in the Sea of Cortez and then go down the Panama Canal and spend the rest of my life cruising the Caribbean,” Calhoun says, “and sing in bars once in a while to keep the cruising kitty up.”

Jimmy Buffett would probably approve.

For more information about Dave Calhoun or to purchase his CDs, visit his website at http://www.tropzone.net/

2 Responses to For trop rock artist, soggy Northwest is always sunny

  1. Leslie Martin December 5, 2009 at 10:23 am #

    Glad to see you have written a feature on our friend Dave! We enjoy his house concerts and seeing him play at other NW events, like the big Lats & Atts cruiser parties. Many of us sailors share his passion for the music and lifestyle.. .and always the dream of going off cruising to tropical locations eventually! We wish him much success in the music career.
    Keep up the good playin Dave!

    Leslie & Patrick
    S/V Illusion

  2. Old Ben Gun December 1, 2009 at 7:41 am #

    Great story. I’m glad to see some one give Dave a little more exposure. Dave has often performed at our cruisers parties and events that we call Jump Ups. I.E. if your not busy jump up and come on over to where ever we are getting together. Dave does a lot for the local boating community and can often be found playing at local pubs, parties or the boat show. He has his own web site if you would like to check his event calender or contact him for your own party. Check Dave’s Web page out http://www.tropzone.net/

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