Jimmy Buffett, one of the biggest pop icons Music City ever produced, died Friday night (Sept. 1) at age 76.
The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member parlayed his good-time, beach-bum persona into a business empire encompassing restaurants, hotels, resorts, bars, casinos, clothing, packaged food, spirits, books, outdoor furniture, home goods and merchandise. Much of it was branded “Margaritaville,” after the 1977 pop and country hit that was his signature song.
Despite its fame and inclusion in the Grammy Hall of Fame, “Margaritaville” was not Buffett’s biggest hit. “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” a 2003 duet with Alan Jackson, topped the country hit parade and remained at No. 1 for eight weeks. He also scored a No. 1 country hit with 2011’s “Knee Deep,” a collaboration with the Zac Brown Band.
But Buffett’s career was not defined by hit records. Rather, it rested on his phenomenally successful concert tours. At his shows, throngs of fans wearing Hawaiian shirts and/or shark-fin hats tossed beach balls and sang along to songs that were never radio favorites. These perennially faithful devotees were dubbed “Parrotheads.”
Born on Christmas Day in 1946, Buffett was raised in Mobile, Alabama. He began playing guitar as a college student at Auburn University and was soon playing folk clubs. In 1969, Buffett moved to Nashville. He became a reporter at Billboard magazine while peddling his songs on Music Row. His big scoop as a journalist was breaking the news that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were dissolving their bluegrass act. In 1971, he became the first artist to play the new Exit/In nightclub.
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After recording two failed albums in Music City in 1970-71, Buffett accepted Jerry Jeff Walker’s invitation to come to Florida. The two became buskers on the streets of Key West, and Buffett decided to stay there. He returned to Nashville to record 1973’s A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean and 1974’s Living and Dying in 3/4 Time. The latter contained “Come Monday,” his first pop hit.
“I was sort of a pioneer,” he observed. “I guess I was one of the few pop acts that came outta here. And I’m not a crossover act [from country music]. I’m my own thing.”
Between 1970 and 1985, Jimmy Buffett recorded 13 albums in Nashville. In 1975, he formed his Coral Reefers Band. Over the years, the group included such Nashvillians as Josh Leo, Mac McAnally, Vince Melamed and Tim Krekel with Marshall Chapman, Bergen White, Buzz Cason, Shane Keister, Kenny Buttrey, Reggie Young, Randy Goodrum and various other Nashvillians along for the ride at various shows. Music Row’s Don Light was Buffett’s first manager.
By the mid 1970s, the entertainer had developed his musical niche purveying island escapism and Caribbean sunshine. Working with Nashville producers Don Gant, Norbert Putnman, Jimmy Bowen and Tony Brown, as well as McAnally, Buffett issued a string of Platinum-selling albums that celebrated Boats, Beaches, Bars and Ballads, as the title of his Quadruple Platinum boxed set put it.
In 1983, he performed at Nashville’s Fan Fair country festival. The following year, he moved his song-publishing business to Nashville. So the income from “Volcano,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (and Screw),” “Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitude,” “Fins,” “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” “Coconut Telegraph,” “One Particular Harbor” and the rest of his catalog was managed by Cason’s Southern Writers Group. Buffett’s songs have been recorded by such country stars as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Tompall & The Glaser Brothers, Willie Nelson, Clint Black, Lefty Frizzell and Crystal Gayle.
“Nashville is the last place where a good melody and a good lyric are appreciated and can be a commercial success,” he said. “I’ve always maintained close friendships with everyone I’ve been involved with in Nashville… I have a lot of roots here and made a lot of records here over the years.”
In 1991, he bought a home in Music City. Then, beginning in 1992, Music Row became the home of his record labels, Margaritaville Records and Mailboat Records.
His songs appeared on the soundtracks of the films Rancho Deluxe, FM, Goin’ West, Summer Rental, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Urban Cowboy. He did cameo appearances in a number of movies and had a recurring role as a helicopter pilot on TV’s Hawaii Five-O in 2011-2020.
His books have all made the New York Times best-sellers lists. They have included Tales From Margaritaville (short stories), Where Is Joe Merchant (a novel), A Pirate Looks at Fifty (a memoir) and A Salty Piece of Land (a novel). Buffett also wrote two musicals and two children’s books.
He co-owned two minor-league baseball teams and three retirement communities. He had his own cannabis brand, as well as a video game. He owned luxury real estate in five states. According to Forbes, he was worth more than $1 billion.
In 1993, Jimmy Buffett played the Tennessee Ball at the Bill Clinton inauguration. A lifelong Democrat, he campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He was an avid supporter of nature conservation. Buffett was a major donor to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, and in 1987 he’d lobbied for the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act.
Back in Nashville, he recorded a 1999 duet version of “Margaritaville” with Alan Jackson, which returned him to the country charts. In 2003, he won his first music-industry honor, a CMA Award for the team’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” The CMA also nominated him for 2004’s “Hey Good Lookin,” a collaboration with Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Toby Keith and Jackson. Buffett’s ties to Music City were underscored in 2004 when he returned to town for his induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“Shores distant shores,
There’s where I’m headed for,
I got the stars to guide my way,
Sail into the light of day…” #BoatsToBuild
— Alan Jackson (@OfficialJackson) September 2, 2023
That is the same year that he resumed recording in Nashville. His album License to Chill on his Mailboat label, featured collaborations with Clint Black, Nanci Griffith and Bill Withers, as well as Strait, Chesney, Keith and Jackson. The collection hit No.1 on the country charts, and its “Trip Around the Sun” duet with Martina McBride became a top-20 country hit.
“This is where I belong,” he decided. “I don’t think I’ve changed that much, but Nashville sure has….There’s more room for versatility than there ever was before, more room to fluctuate musically than in any other form of music….All kinds of people are coming back into this town, from musicians to producers to writers.
“All I’m doing is following my market. I am as old as the people who like me….Finally, it’s gotten to the point where people don’t ask me what it is that I play anymore. They say I’m uncategorized; and to that I say, ‘Thank you.’
“I don’t care what you call it, it’s still folk. I don’t want to give up my acoustic guitar. We’re folky, but you can call it anything you want to.”
In 2005, his Songs You Know By Heart greatest-hits collection was certified by the RIAA for sales of seven million copies. In 2006-20, he issued five more studio albums. There is reportedly a sixth, tentatively titled Equal Strain on All Parts, that has yet to be released. He continued to tour and perform, almost to the end of his life. His last appearance was on July 2 at a McAnally show in Rhode Island.
In late August, Jimmy Buffett entered hospice care. He had an aggressive form of skin cancer and died of its complications at his waterfront estate in Sag Harbor on Long Island. According to his website and social media, he was “surrounded by family, friends, music and his dogs.
“He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many.”
Jimmy Buffett is survived by his wife Jane, son Cameron Marley, daughters Savannah Jane and Sarah Delaney, two grandchildren and two sisters. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
The family has asked that donations be made in his name to the foundation Singing for Change, to Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, both in Boston, and to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
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