Jimmy Buffett isn’t just a songwriter, he’s a way of life. He took his easy-going Gulf Coast slacker persona and built an entire empire out of it.
Born in southern Mississippi and raised in Alabama, he moved to Nashville to try and make it as a country singer in the late 60s, but his first two albums didn’t make much of an impression on Music City, so he left town and drove down to Key West in Florida with Jerry Jeff Walker, where he found the home that he hadn’t been able to find out on the road or in Nashville.
It was there that he found his beach-bum barstool philosopher persona with a combination of country, folk, calypso and rock and created his own unique "Gulf and Western" tropical rock sound.
In a career that’s stretched over 50 years, Jimmy Buffett has been a rare kind of singer songwriter. Holler counts down the 15 best songs of his.
Jimmy Buffett has songs about boats and songs about beaches and songs about drinking and sometimes he even has songs that combine all those passions into one.
'Boat Drinks' was written in the winter of 1979 when Jimmy was staying in Boston, going stir crazy and longing to get away from all the cold weather to sunnier climates down south. All that he could do in the meantime was order up a tray full of “boat drinks” and shoot holes in his freezer. Been there.
On this slow burning ballad from his 1981 album Somewhere Over China, Jimmy’s back in Key West, walking along the old familiar streets and popping into his old haunts to say hello to friends he hasn’t seen in a while and grab a beer and a bite to eat.
Like all of the best Jimmy Buffett songs, he manages to inject his customary humour and pathos into a simple song about basically just milling about.
"This was my first Key West song,” Jimmy has always said. “I was running from a bad marriage and a trail of debt and wound up at the end of America. Nobody cared about either there, and they took the time to applaud the sunset at the end of the day. It was a place for me to hang my hat for a while."
His hat’s still hanging there to this day and, such is the impact that his music has had on the place, it’ll be hanging there long after he’s left.
Jimmy Buffett had totally perfected his peculiar brand of country infused tropical yacht rock by the time of his eight studio album, Son of a Son of a Sailor, and this joyous party anthem was it’s crazy centrepiece.
He’s gone nearly two-and-a-half months just eating sunflower seeds and drinking carrot juice but he can’t help daydreaming about eating a big greasy cheeseburger with chips and ketchup and a cold draft beer.
Jimmy Buffett’s laidback, not-a-care-in-the-world lifestyle should be an inspiration to us all. Even an international country superstar like Alan Jackson.
Stuck in a dead-end job just watching the clock and going nowhere, Alan just decides to sack it all off one lunchtime and head to the nearest bar, figuring it must be time to clock off somewhere in the world. After all, he asks himself, “What would Jimmy Buffett do?”
Alan Jackson isn’t the only one looking to Jimmy Buffett for guidance. Zac Brown and his band invited the singer to join them when they were recording vocals down in Buffett’s Shrimpboat Sound studio in Key West.
Zac Brown is in a post-breakup malaise, so he buys a boat and takes a permanent vacation. The video sees the return of the Flody Boatwood character - played by the band's sound guy Jake Bartol - who first appeared in the video for ‘Toes’. This time around he’s even joined by "Brody Boatwood," played by ZBB guitarist Clay Cook, and Jody Boatwood, played by legendary actress Juliette Lewis.
“It's a strange situation, a wild occupation, living my life like a song,” Jimmy Buffett sings in this deep cut off 1974’s Living and Dying in ¾ Time, as he likens his rootless seafaring to a door-to-door salesman and an ice cream man who’s a hillbilly fan.
“Beause I'm living on things that excite me,” he explains, “be they pastry or lobster or love / I'm just trying to get by being quiet and shy
In a world full of pushing and shove.” Sublime!!
Buffett wrote the title track to his 1978 album about his grandfather, James Delaney Buffett, who went on to become a huge influence on his grandson’s life. He was a sailor born in the town of Rose Blanche in Newfoundland, Canada, who moved to Glace Bay in Nova Scotia.
"I saw a picture of my grandfather after he had come back from a trip to Nova Scotia,” the younger Buffett explained about the song. “He was born there but left when he was a young man and didn't return until he was 84. He was standing on dock staring at an old sailing schooner, and the look on his face told the story of where he had come from and where he had been.”
Jimmy had already begun telling his grandfather’s story in this poignant moment from his 1970 album Down To Earth, but it wasn’t until he cut it for his 1976 album Havana Daydreamin’ that it really found its shape.
After his grandfather died, he looked back on his childhood and the inspiration he’d found in his tales of a life on the open sea when he was younger, and how hard it had been to see that adventurous seafaring man have to settle for a life on dry land as he got older.
With lines like, “His world had gone from sailing ships to raking mom’s back yard / He never could adjust to land although he tried so hard,” Jimmy Buffett bundles up all his hopes and dreams and fears into a fitting tribute to the man who inspired him all those years ago.
The title track of Jimmy’s sixth studio album was the kind of melancholy paean to daydreaming your life away in a faraway place that he’d made his trademark. It doesn’t get much better than this.
In 1977, Jimmy Buffett released Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes and took himself from cult party-song favourite to an international cultural icon and stadium-filling touring artist whose albums sold in their millions.
Towards the end of 1976, his last few albums had all been critically well-received but none of them had sold spectacularly. With the very favourable renegotiated advance that came in from his label, Buffett came good on the mythical promise he’d always made to himself and bought a boat.
The bigger recording budget also meant a bigger producer and they brought in Norbert Putnam, who decided they should record away from Nashville in Criteria Studios in Miami and make use of “Trinidad steel drums, wooden flutes and anything else that was nautical”.
Buffett was hesitant at first, but a few days later called back saying he was fully on board with the idea, and he’d even written a new song inspired by the new recording location - it was called ‘Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.’
Like all the best party goers, Jimmy Buffett is probably at his most lucid when the party’s over and he’s hungover and fragile and worrying about the world. He was only 27 when this song was released, but it's still filled with all the anxieties that come with getting old.
He wrote it about Phil Clark, a modern-day pirate he met when he first moved to Key West. In the song he’s a smuggler, a mercenary, a drug runner and an adventurer, worrying about his place in the world and whether being a pirate would even be suitable vocation for a middle-aged man.
Jimmy Buffett does his best Glen Campbell impression on this love letter to his future wife, Jane, who he was missing while on tour. The first line - "Headed out to San Francisco for the Labor Day weekend show” – was about a specific concert in 1973. Jane even ended up starring in the low-budget video, so at least they got to spend some time together.
Imagine writing a song as beautiful as ‘He Went to Paris’ and it only being the second song on a list of your best.
Buffett had been inspired to write the song after meeting musician Eddie Balchowsky, a one-armed veteran of the Spanish Civil War who he met while playing in Chicago. Taken from the 1973 album A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, Jimmy has often said it’s one of his favourites when he plays it live.
Written one night in 1977 after Buffett discovered the cocktail that would change his life in Lung's Cocina del Sur restaurant in Austin, Texas, ‘Margaritaville’ has become Jimmy Buffett’s signature song.
When he opened his chain of restaurants he even named them all after the song. The song itself is classic Buffett. He nibbles on sponge cake, loses a saltshaker, finds a tattoo of a Mexican woman he doesn’t remember getting and sits around on his porch strumming his guitar and boiling shrimp.
Listen and subscribe to Holler's The Best Jimmy Buffett Songs playlist below: