"Some people claim that there's a woman to blame," the original song said. "But I know it's nobody's fault." On July 11, that phrase became, "But I know it's all BP's fault."
Buffett is a partner in the new 162-room Margaritaville hotel, his first, which opened June 28 in Pensacola, Fla., an hour east of here.
In that regard, he is a kindred spirit with the owners and managers in the vacation rental market in this area. There are 16,000 accommodations — hotel rooms, houses and condo rentals — in Gulf Shores. That's partly what attracted 4.5 million visitors last year, a number that is expected to drop by half, even with a slew of no-deposit reservations and discounts of up to 50% off regular summer rates, said Kim Chapman, public relations manager of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The tourism boom began after 1979's Hurricane Frederic, which nearly destroyed a smaller Gulf Shores and Orange Beach but created a building boom that made this area a major beach resort.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit.
Near the cashier's counter at Mikee's Seafood, a block from the beach, are parallel lines like those parents mark on walls to measure their children's height. The lower, at 12 inches, is the water level from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which did little damage here. The higher mark, 6 feet, is a reminder of Ivan, which turned much of the beachfront into kindling.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach rebuilt. Again.
And now there is oil on the beach. Tourists are canceling reservations. But residents hope they can meet this newest crisis with an old resolve.
"People are asking what they can do to help," Chapman said. "One way is to come visit and let us show them what we have here."
"Other than going into the water or chartering a fishing boat, there's plenty to do" on the Alabama side of the 32-mile island that extends for a few more miles into Florida's Perdido Key.
For example, Fort Morgan, a Civil War fort at the western tip of the county's beach road, is open daily and offers candlelight tours on Tuesday evenings in summer. Arnold Palmer designed three of the region's numerous 18-hole golf courses.
Shoppers may find nirvana just north of Gulf Shores in Foley's Tanger Outlets, where a $498 Coach purse sold for $149 not long ago. And those who like beach kitsch may giggle when they see two of Gulf Shores'souvenir/T-shirt shops; one is entered through a door in a purple and white polka dot octopus, the other through a wide-open shark's mouth.
There's also a water park; a zoo where children can pet a baby monkey or kangaroo; a small amusement park and putt-putt golf courses.
There are clubs with live music — country, blues, rock that you might not hear in California and names — Pink Pony Club springs to mind — you probably won't see out West either. Some are remnants of the old Alabama beach style, once dubbed "Redneck Riviera."
Weekend crowds at the Flora-Bama honky-tonk near the state line are legendary for partying and for leaving brassieres draped over the rafters. I was surprised to see children eating here at 5 p.m. on a recent Monday, shielded by the hour and day from the beer-swilling, dancing-to-live-music mob and seemingly oblivious to the display of undergarments overhead.
Although you'll find fast-food chains, the sit-down restaurants are local — and still serving seafood. Buffett's sister, Lucy, owns Lulu's, which faces a marina on the intracoastal canal.
Tacky Jack's Tavern in Orange Beach is known for its seafood and "Mexican Garbage" cheese and beef nachos with tomatoes, onions, black olives, sour cream, jalapeño peppers and salsa. (President Obama ordered that when he ate dinner here in June.)
"We're trying to support the local restaurants," said Robert Vealey, who drove 14 hours with his wife, Lisa, from their home in Ohio. They had hoped to get tickets to the Buffett concert and didn't but stayed anyway.
"We really like this area," said Robert, a steelworker. "It's laid back."
We watched as 20 or 30 men wearing hazmat suits assembled on the beach. A convoy of trucks rolled on the hard sand among three middle-aged people sitting beside the surf and families playing farther back on the beach. The cleanup was about to begin an hour or so before sunset.
We stayed awhile longer, watching and talking, even laughing, maybe as an antidote to what we saw on the beaches.
"If we couldn't laugh," Buffett sang in "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes," "we'd all go insane."
For info: Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Ala. (800) 745-7263, http://www.gulfshores.com. The beaches are 200 miles, or about 3 1/2 hours, east of New Orleans.