Written By: Kostya Kennedy
Earnest discussions of great American pop-music lyricists—a grouping that might run from Willie Dixon to Bob Dylan to Taylor Swift, with dozens of worthy stops along the way—rarely include Jimmy Buffett. And yet, the second verse of “Margaritaville.” You’ve got it by heart, “Don’t know the reason” through “How it got here I haven’t a clue.” The 33-word verse packs in character and narrative along with suggestions of a layered backstory and an uncertain tomorrow, all delivered with a final twist.
“Margaritaville” is a brand, a business empire, a point of view. It’s perhaps the most profitable song in pop history, and the merchandising that surrounds it—T-shirts, tequilas, taprooms—has obscured its magic. First, and most important, “Margaritaville” is a gorgeous song, life-loving and elegiac, finely crafted and cheeky, a nuanced nugget of genius.
There was more where that came from. Critics weren’t often kind to Buffett—although in 1976, before the blinding presence of “Margaritaville,” a New York Times review suggested, “Mr. Buffett is a clever man, both in his words and his music. The lyrics generally hint at deeper meaning without getting portentous about it.” Dylan once named Buffett among the songwriters he most admired.
Buffett died at age 76 on September 1, 2023, the Friday of Labor Day weekend. That called to mind the opening lines of “Come Monday,” Buffett’s first Top 40 hit, a song he said rescued him from depression and helped to set his course toward the open sea. “Come Monday” is about the privilege and pain of missing someone, the promise of rediscovery, and the fact of having, in that someone, a North Star. “You’re that much a part of me now,” Buffett sings.
Upon Buffett’s death, many in the music world saluted his songwriting, his lyrics, his place in the firmament. Paul McCartney weighed in, as did Elton John and Brian Wilson. So did a cohort of country music stars Buffett influenced, among them Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and, of course, Buffett’s friend and collaborator Alan Jackson. “Shores distant shores, There’s where I’m headed for, I got the stars to guide my way, Sail into the light of day,” Jackson posted on X, excerpting the 2004 Buffett song “Boats to Build,” which Jackson also sang on.
Buffett’s vibe was fed continuously by the shores and waters of the American South. Of performing live, he liked to say, “I only play where it’s warm.” In fact, he played Greenwich Village folk clubs along with Texas roadhouses. He headlined at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. He opened for the Eagles on their Hotel California tour. He shared the stage with Willie Nelson at Nelson’s annual Fourth of July festival. Buffett crossed the Atlantic—he had planned to play Paris again this year. He traversed the equator, he sailed through rain and snow, and he cut records in the shade of a volcano. Sometimes he got where he was going by piloting one of his planes or captaining one of his boats. He was a kind of missionary—with margaritas. The crowds, devoted Parrotheads at their core, followed everywhere.
Come Monday of Labor Day weekend 2023, the DJs on Sirius XM’s Radio Margaritaville were weeping less openly than they had been on the days before. Laughter and remembrances rang over the airwaves between some songs. A few listeners requested “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On” as support. “How you doin’?” a caller asked JD Spradlin, a DJ who has worked from his Parrot Perch studio in Universal Orlando’s Margaritaville Café since 2007. “Doin’,” Spradlin replied.
Gone are the live concerts—healthy, Buffett played three dozen a year—with the folksy storytelling, the tall tales, the audience singing along. But the radio station isn’t going anywhere. Neither is Margaritaville, as a place or as a state of mind. New tribute bands will form; country stars will pay homage at their own shows. We’ll be listening to Jimmy Buffett’s words and melodies, feeling him, for many years to come. He’s that much a part of us now. •
Here are some photos from LIFE’s new special issue Jimmy Buffett: A PIrate’s Life. Available here.