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Jimmy Buffett Helped Define Popular Culture

One song by Jimmy Buffett would help define popular culture and make him extremely wealthy

When asked to name a song linked to a billion-dollar industry, “Happy Birthday” might spring to mind first. But how about “Margaritaville,” the 1977 folk-pop classic by singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett?

For in April this year, Forbes magazine posted a profile of Buffett, listing his net worth in excess of $1B, most of it accumulated from the Margaritaville brand he launched in 1985. It includes restaurant and resort chains, casino, housing, branded merchandise, liquor and even a marijuana brand.

But essentially Buffett was a musician, both as a recording artist – his catalogue includes more than 50 albums – but more importantly as a performer. He was constantly on the road worldwide, entertaining loyal fans who became known as Parrotheads! His last gig was a three-song performance in June.

Buffett died on September 1 “surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs” after battling skin cancer. He was 76.

Buffett’s music was dubbed “gulf and western,” given his long years around the shores of the Caribbean. But it was quintessential Americana, long before the term was invented. And it took a U.S. President, or, more likely, his speechwriter, to best define it when Joe Biden wrote in a tribute statement: "His witty, wistful songs celebrate a uniquely American cast of characters and seaside folkways, weaving together an unforgettable musical mix of country, folk, rock, pop and calypso into something uniquely his own."

Buffett, who was born in Mississippi and raised in Mobile, Alabama, was entering his eighth year as a recording artist when he released his seventh studio album Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitude. It was recorded in Miami, for although Buffet had started his career in Nashville, he had settled in the Florida resort of Key West after busking there in the early seventies with another legend-to-be Jerry Jeff Walker.

There were two singles off Changes – the title track and the melodic, foot-tapping “Margaritaville,” which would spend 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart and peak at #8. It would also influence popular culture.

The song essentially examines resigned intoxication, aggravated by a broken heart. You might call it a philosophical ditty. The writer adds intrigue by progressively concluding who might be to blame for his fate by the seashore.

To be more precise, it is the story of a man strumming his guitar while watching tourists on the nearby Florida beach. He is suffering from a hangover and has just limped home after losing a flip-flop and cutting his heel on a drink can. To add to his woes, he has misplaced his salt-shaker - not to mention his true love!

Buffett first got the idea for the song while - surprise, surprise – drinking a margarita in a bar in Austin in 1976. As he reflected on his life in Key West and where his career might be heading, he jotted down notes on a cocktail napkin. He would complete the composition back in Florida.

During the actual recording session, Buffett explained to producer Norbert Putnam the contents of “Margaritaville.” Putnam was less than impressed, but soon changed his mind when Buffett played a rough version a few days later. All in the studio knew by then that it was just the song needed to hang an album on.

The easy-listening melody was certainly a contributing factor to its success. But Buffett’s lyrical construction is simply brilliant. The best example comes in the six short lines of verse two. Lines one and two rhyme, as do four and five, leaving three to hinge perfectly with the final line:

Don’t know the reason

Stayed here all season

Nothing to show but this brand new tattoo

But it’s a real beauty

A Mexican cutie

How it got here I haven’t a clue

As in many recordings, there is a “lost verse” which was apparently edited from “Margaritaville” to make the single more “radio friendly.” Buffett would often add it to live performances. Again he uses the six-line lyrical structure:

Old men in tank tops

Cruisin’ the gift shops

Checkin’ out chiquitas down by the shore

They dream about weight loss

Wish they could be their own boss

Those three-day vacations can be such a bore

But perhaps the most appealing facet to “Margaritaville” is the tease Buffett introduces at the end of each of the three choruses as he cleverly speculates as to who might be responsible for the failed romance. His cue line: Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame

In the first verse: But I know It’s nobody’s fault

In the second: Now I think, hell it could be my fault

And finally: But I know, it’s my own damn fault

This technique is not uncommon in popular songwriting. Woody Guthrie used it superbly in “Philadelphia Lawyer,” while Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot followed suit to provide finite punctuation to some of their songs.

Why it works so well for Buffett has much to do with his popularity as a live performer. Fans the world over were only too delighted to screech out the much-beloved refrain punchline.

“Margaritaville” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016 for its cultural and historical significance. And earlier this year, the song was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.

The impact the success of not only “Margaritaville” but the Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitude album itself more than kick-started Buffett’s career. And by the early 80’s he was churning out more singalong hits such as “Come Monday,” “Fins,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and “A Pirate Looks at 40.” Ticket-sales accordingly soared.

It was fitting that his last communication with fans would be to apologize for postponing a handful of shows in late May. “Growing old is not for sissies, I promise you.” he said. "You all make my life more meaningful and fulfilled than I would have ever imagined as a toe-headed little boy sitting on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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