As the son of a son of a sailor/I went out on the sea for adventure/Expanding the view of the captain and crew/Like a man just released from indenture...
As the self-described son of a son of a sailor, Jimmy Buffett took to the seas for adventures beyond his wildest dreams. He recorded his first album for Andy Williams' Barnaby label in 1970, but that album, Down to Earth, would sell a reported 324 copies in its initial outing. Buffett soon traded earth for water and embarked on a voyage unlike any other in popular culture. The singer-songwriter, who died last evening at the age of 76, only had one top ten hit (the timeless "Margaritaville") but launched a record label, two restaurant chains, a beer, a casino, resorts, real estate communities, two musicals, and a career as a best-selling writer and novelist all based around a fantasy world of sun, sand, boats, margaritas, and fins (to the left, fins to the right). He was only one of six writers - the group also includes Ernest Hemingway and William Styron - to reach the top spot of The New York Times best-seller list for both Fiction and Non-Fiction.
James William Buffett of Pascagoula, Mississippi accomplished all this by staying true to himself. A onetime journalist for Billboard, he initially used his keen eye for observation for sly, socially-conscious folk-rock. But his second album, the 1973 Dunhill release A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, set the template for the remainder of Buffett's discography. While it still bore the hallmarks of Buffett's then-base of Nashville, it found the singer-songwriter unafraid to celebrate hedonism with "Why Don't We Get Drunk (And Screw)." Novelty or not, it became a raucous audience sing-along at Buffett's live shows. The album also included "Railroad Lady," co-written with Jerry Jeff Walker and covered by Willie Nelson. Merle Haggard, and Lefty Frizzell, and "He Went to Paris," reinterpreted by Waylon Jennings and Doug Supernaw. 1974's Living and Dying in 3/4 Time introduced the sweetly loping ballad "Come Monday," which became Buffett's first top 40 hit, and further developed the relaxed, sun-drenched Key West persona and "gulf and western" style (jokingly named after Paramount Pictures' parent company Gulf + Western) sound on which Buffett would build his singular brand.
Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes, produced by Norbert Putnam and released on Dunhill successor ABC Records in 1977, was the breakthrough for which Buffett had been hoping. The best-selling studio album of his career, it introduced both the title song - a good an encapsulation of the Buffett philosophy as any - and the insistently catchy "Margaritaville," his first and only top ten hit and an AC chart-topper. The invitation to waste away in Margaritaville was difficult for even casual listeners to resist; the bouncy tune and wry lyrics provided instant escape from the daily grind. Changes was the album which catapulted Buffett from a cult favorite to a top-tier concert draw whose legions of Parrotheads would prove one of the most devoted fan bases in pop history. (The name was coined by a onetime member of The Coral Reefer Band, Eagles and Poco veteran Timothy B. Schmit.) Today, Changes is considered the final album of Buffett's early "Key West" quartet; future LPs would hone his good-time style melding country, calypso, reggae, pop, and folk on such feel-good, sing-along anthems as "Fins," "Cheeseburger in Paradise," and "Volcano." Even as he balanced gentle, wistful balladry with goofy, punning uptempo confections, island imagery was never far away. Buffett brought his career full circle, in a sense, when country audiences again embraced him in the 21st century. His 2003 duet with Alan Jackson on "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" spent eight non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Country chart. Jimmy's 2004 LP License to Chill welcomed a host of country artists, and yielded hits with Martina McBride ("Trip Around the Sun") and an all-star supergroup featuring Buffett alongside Jackson, George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and Clint Black (a cover of "Hey, Good Lookin'"). In 2011, he was back at No. 1 with The Zac Brown Band and "Knee Deep."
Jimmy's discography is an expansive one, comprising over 30 studio albums, more than a dozen live sets, and compilations including 1985's Songs You Know by Heart, still the best-selling LP in his catalogue. While his proper albums have never received expanded and remastered deluxe editions, he began looking back at his archive in recent years with such projects as 2017's Buried Treasure: Volume One. The 1992 four-CD box Boats, Beaches, Bars, and Ballads and 2003 two-disc compilation Meet Me in Margaritaville: The Ultimate Collection both make strong starting points for an immersion into Buffett's world of pirates, surf, boozy bliss, and Coral Reefers.
An artist who turned his lifestyle into his life's work, Buffett was also a dedicated philanthropist particularly dedicated to environmental and conservation causes. "Live Like It's Your Last Day," went a tune from his 2020 album Life on the Flip Side. Jimmy Buffett certainly did that. He'll be remembered by anyone who's ever joyfully sang along to one of his famous tunes and forgotten all about their troubles, even if only for a few minutes. Thanks, Jimmy. Sail on, sailor.