There was wistfulness behind party tunes like “Margaritaville.” Buffett helped listeners feel like they’d earned the good times just by holding on.
Jimmy Buffett built a pop-culture empire on the daydream of “wastin’ away again in Margaritaville”: just hanging out on a tropical beach, drink in hand, a little wistful but utterly relaxed. The empire’s cornerstone was his 1977 hit “Margaritaville,” a catalog of minor mishaps — a misplaced saltshaker, a cut foot — that were all easily soothed with “that frozen concoction.”
It’s a countryish song with south-of-the border touches like marimba and flutes, a style jovially summed up as “Gulf and Western.” It’s a resort-town fantasy of creature comforts close at hand and, of course, it’s a drinking song. Buffett leveraged it into a major brand for restaurants, resorts, clothing, food and drink, as well as a perpetual singalong on his robust touring circuit, where his devoted fans — the Parrot Heads — gathered eagerly in their Hawaiian shirts.
Buffett cannily marketed his good-timey image; it made him a billionaire. He came up with wry song premises like the one behind “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” which starts as the lament of an attempted vegetarian who can’t resist carnivorous impulses. He brought jokey wordplay to his song and album titles and his band name, the Coral Reefers, and he summed up his career with the boxed-set title “Boats, Beaches, Bars and Ballads.” Country singers like Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and Zac Brown latched on to his seaside-and-booze themes and acknowledged his influence by sharing duets with him.
But Buffett’s songwriting wasn’t all smiley and one-dimensional. “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane,” he sang in “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.” He wrote about characters with sadder-but-wiser back stories, like the 86-year-old who had lost his wife and son in wartime in “He Went to Paris,” the hapless robber in “The Great Filling Station Holdup” and the sometime smuggler in “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” who shrugs, “I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown.”
As a conservationist Buffett also, humorously or humbly, contemplated the power and beauty of Nature in songs like “Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season”; its narrator writes a song as a storm moves in, but also worries, “I can’t run at this pace very long.” In “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On,” from his 2006 album “Take the Weather With You,” the singer looked back on what Hurricane Katrina had done to New Orleans.
The backdrop to Buffett’s party tunes is often one of relief, not entitlement. He sings about mistakes, regrets, work, longing, nostalgia and, beginning decades ago, the inevitability of aging: “I can see the day when my hair’s full gray/And I finally disappear,” he sang on his 1983 song “One Particular Harbour,” a staple of his live sets.
So the drinks and parties and vacations and boat trips, or finally being able to settle down in that place by the beach, became consolations for past troubles — even if those troubles were self-made. Buffett helped listeners feel like they’d earned the good times just by holding on long enough to enjoy them. The party was justified — reason enough to order another round.