An Essay about the Great Jimmy Buffett

Remembering the Musical Legacy: A Reflection on His Influence and Passing of Jimmy Buffett

There are a large handful of musicians that would narrate my life, and aside from the comings and goings of my emotional experiences that might relate in a passing way with a song that speaks to me in a moment, fewer musicians have been a part of my life for longer than I can even remember, and it's these musicians that provide the soundtrack, as one says, to my life. The spirit of the background music is left on always, and that can sometimes only be heard between the lagging of other more temporary songs, because they are always there. 

          I have been listening to the music of Jimmy Buffett since well before I understood what music even is. My dad is a Parrothead, and in time all of us would become Parrotheads': my dad, my mother, my sister, and I. At every stage of my life Jimmy Buffett’s music has been there, whether it was playing through the stereo speakers in our living room, on cassette players and Walkman’s, iPods and iPhones, car speakers, stage left, and the nosebleeds, and anything that might catch and carry sound. Right at this moment, sitting in my room in the Murray Hotel, I can hear his music resonating through the pipes of the boilers, exploring the historic building like a harmonic web among the building’s skeleton originating from the bar below me. The Murray Bar has been playing Jimmy Buffett’s music all day.

Jimmy Buffett died yesterday, September 1, 2023; he was 76. And all of his songs are playing all at once in my head, and I feel drunk with disbelief. Buffett was bigger than any genre, he wrote stories and put them to song, and everyone who listened was able then to relate to the world in a way that is genuinely lighter than most everyone else. It was never his laissez faire latitude that would make his music appealing, but rather that Buffett allowed us to relate to one another a little bit easier, and in a way more tactile and genuine than anyone else ever has (except, maybe, Freddie Mercury).

"Where it all ends, I can't fathom my friends, if I knew I might toss out my anchor, so I cruise along, always searchin' for songs, not a lawyer, a thief, or a banker." (Buffett, Jimmy. "Son of a Son of a Sailor," Son of a Son of a Sailor.)

The last time that I was home, in the evening my family sat around the firepit outside, and my dad was playing Buffett’s newly released album, Songs You Don’t Know by Heart, but of course my dad knew all of them by heart, and the rest of us knew most of them. The four of us sat there as the sun went down, drinking margaritas, watching the fire, and listening and singing along with Jimmy Buffett because that’s what we do. That’s what Jimmy Buffett gave to us. Songs You Know by Heart, is one of four or five albums that has followed me throughout my life; literally, the album has been sitting in the side panel of my car(s) door for the last twenty years, and despite the other albums there, Songs You Know by Heart, has been played from start to finish and then left to resume, and again more than any other one album.

          Nearly two years ago I took a job in Bozeman, Montana and, looking for affordable housing, I happened upon Livingston, Montana (around twenty miles east of Bozeman). I quickly learned that Livingston has a kinship with Jimmy Buffett. Besides Buffett’s contribution to the movie Rancho Deluxe, the song “Livingston Saturday Night,” about Livingston, Montana, Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Laurie, met and married adopted Livingston Native, author Thomas McGuane (who, as it happens, penned the screenplay for Rancho Deluxe). I asked around the first few months I was here about Buffett and how often he'll make an appearance in town, and I was always told that the people at the Murray Hotel have a relationship with him. 

It had been a while since anyone at the Murray had seen Buffett; I did, however, learn about the local lore behind the origins of "Cheeseburger in Paradise." As many of you may know there are a number of legends regarding the origins of the song, but according to those here at the Murray who knew him, Buffett stopped at Mark’s In & Out, a 50’s style burger joint with a walk up window here in Livingston, and then, with his cheeseburger in hand, took a drive through beautiful Paradise Valley, between Livingston and Yellowstone National Park, hence the name, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” There are enough legends that even those that knew him well may longer actually know, or maybe there's truth to all of them. I know that when I hear it I cannot help but to sing along, and that's true of most of his music.

I thought I might bump into Jimmy Buffett, at least once while living here; I imagined that he would be sitting at the Murray Bar when I walked in, and I would recognize him without question, but I wouldn’t know why at first. It would come to me, because he would certainly be talking to, and laughing with the people around him, regardless of whether they knew who he was, and I would recognize his voice, or a synapse would fire, and the knowing would suddenly be there, in the way that memories and ideas sometimes come, and I would look for my opportunity to interject, and try to pun with his lyrics, while two or three beers slipped away.

            Everyone has their handful of people that, as they pass along, the world no longer seems the same, and it may not always be easy to understand why these people more than others influence our worldview, nevertheless they do, and they do profoundly. It struck me when Robin Williams passed away, and then it struck me again today. 

“Jimmy, some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all the way.” (Buffett, Jimmy. “He Went to Paris,” A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean). 

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