When American music legend Jimmy Buffett passed away on September 1st, it became patently evident to all of us just how important this man and his music had been to popular music irrespective of genre. Though he only ever scored one official #1 hit, this is a significantly misleading stat compared to the host of signature songs Buffett accrued over his career, and the ultimate success and impact he had with them.
Despite the lack of radio play beyond “Margaritaville,” or a proper genre to call his home, Jimmy Buffett scored nine Certified Platinum albums over his career, and an additional eight Certified Gold albums. This includes the whopping 7X Platinum Songs You Know By Heart Greatest Hits compilation, which as the name implies, includes songs that many people in the United States know front to back.
Perhaps the stat that’s the best summation of Jimmy Buffett’s career is that he was one of music’s few billionaires. Sure, a lion’s share of that billion was built off of his Margaritaville resorts, restaurants, and licensing deals. But you don’t make that happen unless a song you wrote resonates so wide that it becomes an indelible part of American culture. This is what Jimmy Buffett did.
Jimmy Buffett also inspired incredible loyalty from his fans that call themselves “Parrotheads” because similar to The Grateful Dead’s “Deadheads,” they’d crawl over broken glass to see him perform. Despite the widespread commercial success of the Jimmy Buffett empire later in his life, he also enjoyed phenomenal grassroots support, which is how he became so successful over time despite radio and genres not really knowing what to do with him.
This brings us to the discussion of why you never see or hear the name of Jimmy Buffett come up whenever talk veers towards who should be vying for the next class of inductees into the Hall of Fame, either the Country Hall of Fame, or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We’re talking about a billionaire musician who left behind a voluminous catalog of hit albums, and an empire inspired by one of the most widely recognized songs in popular music history, and nobody even considers to mention his name for Hall of Fame consideration.
This is all facilitated by the confounding question of what genre Jimmy Buffett belongs in. If you take an informed and objective assessment of his catalog from a sonic standpoint, Jimmy Buffett is clearly a country artist more than he’s anything else. With the emphasis on songwriting, how many of his albums were cut in Nashville with steel guitar and other country instrumentation, and how so many country artists covered his songs over the years, it makes sense that he would be considered country.
The subgenre Buffett regularly cited to explain his sound was called “Gulf and Western,” which is a take on “country and Western,” just calling to mind his inspiration of the gulf coast, which lies in the Southern United States.
But since consistently throughout Jimmy Buffett’s career, country music only sprinkled in plays in for his singles while Adult Contemporary and pop radio played them more consistently, people didn’t think of Buffett as a country artist. Take his breakout single “Come Monday,” which is clearly a country song. It stalled at #58 on the country charts, but hit #3 in Adult Contemporary, and #30 on the Billboard Hot 100. This started Jimmy Buffett down the path of being considered a soft rock star.
However, have you seen Jimmy Buffett’s name considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame either? Absolutely not, in part because voters and pundits don’t think he has enough “hits.” Meanwhile, the Rock Hall is putting in country artists like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton to try to garner publicity for themselves when Jimmy Buffett would be a perfectly fine fit.
In truth, Jimmy Buffett was like his own genre. He defied genre like many of the greats do. Country may have never formally claimed Jimmy Buffett as their own, but they sure co-opted his sound. Kenny Chesney may have never had a career if it wasn’t for the “toes in the sand” influence Jimmy Buffett imparted to country. And just like Buffett, Kenny Chesney has now become country music’s most consistent live draw over multiple decades.
The Zac Brown Band and a bunch of others have also taken the influence of Jimmy Buffett and spun it into hit songs and significant careers. Alan Jackson had a Triple Platinum single with Buffett via 2003’s “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” that went #1. Zac Brown Band had another Triple Platinum #1 single featuring Buffett in 2011 called “Knee Deep.”
It took until later in his career, but country music finally embraced Jimmy Buffett in full form, both as an influence and a legend. This is one of the reasons that on the 2023 CMA Awards, a special tribute is planned for Buffett, with Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band, Mac McAnally, and Buffett’s Coral Refer band all participating.
Plenty of Country Music Hall of Famers never had significant chart success either. Kris Krsitofferson only had one #1 hit and never cracked the Top 40 again. Marty Stuart never had a single do better than #5.
In truth, Jimmy Buffett shouldn’t just be considered for the Country Music Hall of Fame, or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He should be inducted in both. Due to a rule in the Country Hall of Fame bylaws stating that you can’t be inducted the year after you die to shut down sympathy votes, Jimmy Buffett won’t be considered for the Country Music Hall of Fame this upcoming cycle.
But in subsequent years, Jimmy Buffett most certainly should be part of the Hall of Fame discussion, along with the laundry list of other artists that are scandalously on the outside looking into the honor. And instead of inducting country artists already in the Country Hall of Fame like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could also step up to the plate, since that’s a more likely possibility for Buffett due to their expanded field.
Jimmy Buffett mattered to music well beyond the Margaritaville franchise, and his legacy deserves to be enshrined in the Halls of American music reserved for the most important and influential artists of our time. That’s what Jimmy Buffett was. He was a Hall of Famer.