Pop guitarist and vocalist Peter Mayer was in India long before the Beatles made their famous trip there in 1968.

Of course, his situation was different. Mayer was a child, living in Tamilnadu because his parents were Lutheran missionaries.

Today, any self-respecting Parrothead, as devout Jimmy Buffett fans are known, can tell you that Mayer is the lead guitarist of Buffett's Coral Reefer Band. He's been playing and touring with Buffett for 17 years.

But memories of his childhood in India's far southern region, and his parents' work there, are two things that infuse Mayer's second career as an artist in his own right. He puts out CDs with a spiritual bent, and his latest is "Musicbox."

"Growing up in India stirred something in my soul that even now, in my 40s, makes me never want to be too far away from passing on the gifts I was given," Mayer says.

Mayer was born in India, one of eight children raised by Jim and Selma "Sammy" Mayer.

"By Indian standards, we were pretty wealthy," says Mayer, on a 14-city tour for the holiday season. "We were able to hire Indian helpers for around the house, so our life was comfortable.

"But it was poignant, because around us was such poverty. It was such a gorgeous country, with beautiful people, but we were face to face with the cold realities of people not having even the basic medical care they needed."

Mayer's parents found an old piano that Jim would play. There were always classical records on the turntable, and lots of music at church, some of it infused with the Indian tradition of flutes and drums, shakers and bells.

When Mayer was 8 in 1965, his family moved back to its hometown of St. Louis. The 1960s music scene was in full bloom. "The Beatles, Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix -- it was just an incredible time to grow up," Mayer says.

He began buying albums and learned to play the clarinet; his parents bought him a $50 Suzuki guitar, and he taught himself to play. The first song he learned was Paul McCartney's "Blackbird."

Mayer's younger brother Jim played bass. Soon, both were forming pop groups and playing throughout their years at Lutheran High School South in St. Louis.

Eventually, Peter joined with Jim and a drummer named Roger Guth and headed to Los Angeles. They signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1987. The name of their group was PM, and their first album was produced by Elliot Scheiner, who had worked with Aretha Franklin and Steely Dan. PM's first single, "Piece of Paradise," got up to No. 8 on the Billboard charts.

They began opening for acts such as Chicago and the Moody Blues. "We had a great time for six months, a year, but when it came time for a second single, we tanked," he says. "Then we heard from Elliott that Jimmy Buffett was looking for a band."

Mayer, familiar with "Margaritaville" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," was not initially smitten. "But then we thought, what the heck, it's going to be fun," he says. "We headed to Key West (Fla.) and then on to summer tours."

Some misgivings remained. "I was looking at it as a temporary thing," Mayer says. "I was trying to leave, yet every year, the tour would roll around again."

In 1995, Mayer had a change of heart. "Something hit me," he says. "I realized, we play in front of a million people each summer, we write and perform, and I decided to embrace it.

"I discovered that sometimes the things you think are stumbling blocks are steppingstones."

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  • In months off from touring, Mayer decided to make his own music, recorded under the Peter Mayer Group -- with his brother Jim and Guth, both of whom also play for Buffett. Their first release was a pop album called "Green Eyed Radio."

    "We got in a van and toured in a small-potatoes way, and little by little our fan base grew," he says.

    In the meantime, Mayer and his wife, Patricia O'Reilly, were raising two children in St. Louis -- Brendan, now 16, and India, 13. When Jim Mayer and Roger Guth decided to move to Nashville, Tenn., from St. Louis in 1999, the Mayers moved, too. They became members of a Lutheran church there. The pastor, knowing Mayer's musical talent, asked him to write some songs.

    "The language of church and faith came naturally to me -- this was music my mother had sung to me when I was a child," he says.

    Soon Mayer began incorporating touches of his faith in the music he wrote and performed with his band.

    "In a way, that was frightening at first, because it always puts a strange untouchable label on you," he says. "Part of that is because to some people, it conveys exclusion."

    And he understands that, he says. He had found that some of what is referred to as Christian music tends to emphasize certain religious tenets.

    "But for me, it's clearly the opposite -- because a person has faith and it is grounded in certain traditions and pillars doesn't mean that I would exclude another person's rock and pillars. Rather, I'd like us to find a common ground and source to God.

    "And I say this with total respect, but sometimes the songs I hear on Christian radio, some of them don't deal with the many dynamics of faith, but rather the tenets of one belief."

    Mayer says the songs he writes deal with the relationship of faith and its struggles and joys, rather than one religious way.

    The spirituality that permeates his life, says Mayer, is the result of a relationship with God that took a turn when he was 14. A friend of his got involved with a charismatic expression of religion, then questioned Mayer as to whether he had really been "saved."

    "It raised all these doubts with me," Mayer says. "I told my mom I was really worried, because I didn't know if I was saved.

    "And she told me something that changed my life. She said, `You are in the arms of a loving God who will never let you go.' And that relief was like cool water to me."

    Mayer knows there are people who wonder if there is a contradiction between his spiritual life and his work as a Coral Reefer. How does his spirituality jibe with playing music for a man whose hit list includes "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw?"

    It's a logical question, says Mayer.

    "Jimmy lives life to the fullest," he says. "He loves to have a good time, and there were some wild party years. In the early years, it was like being in the major leagues, and there were some choices I made that I would take back. Now things are under control.

    "And I have to credit my good wife and incredible kids for hanging in there with me."

    Besides, says Mayer, while Buffett celebrates with total abandon, "I know that the good in the way he lives his life far outweighs that. You never know where God's grace will come from, and I'd never have guessed a source of it for me would be from Jimmy, but it has been."

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