Jimmy Buffett Was Country (RIP)

Jimmy Buffett died late on Friday, September 1st, just as many were preparing for the extended Labor Day weekend in the United States, or what many consider as the official send off of the summer season that so many people spend on boats and beaches, or otherwise beside bodies of water, finding themselves in Southern latitudes with Southern attitudes no matter where they happen to be, just like Jimmy Buffett sang for us to do.

Jimmy Buffet wasn’t just a musician. He was the embodiment of resetting your mood, of centering the right priorities in life, and of making sure you don’t waste your time on Earth by making sure you budget time for wasting. From certified beach bums to those who owned private islands, Jimmy Buffett was their Captain. “Margaritaville” wasn’t just a place or a song, it was a state-of-mind.

No matter your lot in life, your specific geographic location, or the time of season, Jimmy Buffett allowed us all to be spirited away to some place sunnier, warmer, more carefree, and far away from the drudgery of the moment to appreciate a respite in Paradise.

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Make no mistake about it, Jimmy Buffett was country. There are most certainly qualifiers and caveats to that assessment. But country music is where he started, and country music was where his music was centered. He just happened to get so big and find his way into so many people’s hearts and catalogs, it’s hard to place him securely anywhere. But Jimmy Buffett was country first and foremost.

Born in Pascagoula, Mississippi and raised in Mobile, Alabama, the Southern Gulf was in his blood. But Jimmy Buffett started his music career in Nashville, moving there to become a country artist and releasing his first album, the country rock-infused Down To Earth in 1970. Since Buffett wasn’t a hard country performer of the era, he fell in more with the rock crowd. He performed at the Exit/In in Nashville as opposed to the Grand Ole Opry.

Though Jimmy Buffett would rise to become country music’s first and only billionaire, the early part of his career saw him performing as a busker on the streets of New Orleans and other places, and playing pickup shows wherever he could find them. And one point he drifted down to Austin, TX, and was there to witness and be a part of the very early incarnations of the Austin music scene, attempting to emulate one of his early heroes, Jerry Jeff Walker who’d written “Mr. Bojangles.”

Jerry Jeff Walker and Jimmy Buffett invariably ended up at Luckenbach, TX—the famous little spot in the Texas Hill Country also known for finding a more laid-back attitude. It was there that Jerry Jeff and Jimmy Buffett hatched a plan to travel to Key West, FL where the gigs came easy, and so did the good times. They left for Key West in November of 1971. Jerry Jeff would eventually return to Texas. Jimmy Buffett would find his true home.

Most any of Jimmy Buffett’s biggest songs are fair to fit within the country music canon. Some label it “Gulf & Western” music. But really, there was nothing Western about it. There’s no references to the open range, the lonesome prairie, the rugged cowboy, or the Wild West. Jimmy Buffet’s music was a place apart from all that.

Instead of Jimmy Buffett’s music catering to the country genre, the entire country genre ended up catering itself to the Jimmy Buffett influence. Kenny Chesney has been country music’s only consistent stadium draw for going on a second decade. His specific brand of Southern, “toes in the sand” songs would never have found the reception they did if not for Jimmy Buffett seeding that appetite in the American music diet.

Now scores of country artists have either leaned into or at least included Jimmy Buffett-style songs on their albums or repertoire. Sandy, sun tanned songs are now a specific subgenre of country music, and have been for some time, however much to the chagrin of the oldtimers. Specifically, Buffett’s collaborations with country artists have been quite lucrative and memorable.

Jimmy Buffett collaborated directly with Kenny Chesney on numerous occasions, as well as the Zac Brown Band who’ve embraced the “toes in the sand” vibe on numerous occasions too. A 2003 Jimmy Buffett collaboration with Alan Jackson on “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” not only went to #1, it won the CMA for Vocal Event of the Year. This was the only major award Jimmy Buffett ever won during his career. It’s also Buffet’s most popular song on Spotify.

It’s fair to say that in music, Jimmy Buffett wasn’t regarded highly by some of his peers, or by critics in the press. He was seen as quite commercial, as sort of a one-trick pony, who found a sound and style that worked, and stuck with it, refusing to veer from that formula once it landed. His devout legion of followers called Parrotheads didn’t care. That’s what they were there for. But over time, Jimmy Buffett sort of became a parrot of himself.

Similarly, money and things seemed to become one of Jimmy Buffett’s biggest motivations as time went on. Branding with his “Margaritaville” restaurants and gift shops became paramount. In 2019, there was an effort underway to preserve the building at 152 Nassau Street in Atlanta where Fiddlin’ John Carson played his songs “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” and “The Old Hen Cackled” on June 19, 1923 for Ralph Peer, arguably resulting in the very first country music recordings. This was four years before The Bristol Sessions.

That effort failed. The historic building was bulldozed to erect the massive Jimmy Buffett “Margaritaville Vacation Club.” It seemed Jimmy Buffett had forgotten his country roots. He may have started as a busker, but he ended up as one of the richest entertainers in the history of music by exploiting his brand into an international franchise. He used that wealth to purchase yachts and islands, embracing the same lifestyle he sang about, but in certain ways, steering away from the original perspective that he’d started his career with.

This wasn’t Jimmy Buffett’s only country music controversy. David Allan Coe also landed in Key West for a period. His album Spectrum VII from April of 1979 includes numerous references to the Florida Keys. Though initially David Allan Coe and Jimmy Buffet were thought to be friendly, it turned sour. Buffett claimed that Coe lifted the chorus to “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” for “Divers Do It Deeper.” Jimmy Buffett stated later, “I would have sued him, but I didn’t want to give Coe the pleasure of having his name in the paper.”

Coe returned fire when he released the song “Jimmy Buffett” on the first of his two underground albums, 1978’s Nothing’s Sacred. Coe was apparently inspired to record the comical album while hanging out with Shel Silverstein in Key West, listening to Silverstein’s comedy album, Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball.

Shel Silverstein was another famous Key West resident, and with the legacy of Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and others on the island, Key West is now considered a significant landmark on the country music and songwriter’s map, hosting an annual songwriter’s festival each year, as well as the Texas/Red Dirt-themed Mile 0 Fest, the ’90s-inspired Key Western Fest, as well as many Buffett-centric festival and events every year. Aside from Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett is Key West’s most famous resident.

But what Jimmy Buffett’s critics and even some of fans never seem to give him proper credit for is how early in his career, Buffett wanted to be a songwriter, and had something to say. His mentors were Jerry Jeff Walker and Jim Croce, and Buffett envisioned himself in that vein. Even when his music became a big commercial enterprise, Buffett still would slip in more meaningful songs that the cynics about his career passed over when referencing “Cheeseburger in Paradise” or “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw.”

Jimmy Buffett inspired much of America’s Southern migration. He allowed people to see beyond the gulf coast’s industrialization and poverty to the beauty and of its beaches and people. His songs like “Come Monday” and “Margaritaville” are American standards.

Jimmy Buffett’s career and legacy may have been complex, but the attitude he conveyed to million of people never was. Even if you couldn’t be on a boat or sandy beach somewhere, you would pipe up Jimmy Buffett and experience the next best thing. That’s not an easy feat, but Jimmy Buffett sure made it sound and look that way.

“Headin’ out to San Francisco, for the Labor Day weekend show…”

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