“I feel very proud of surviving,” Jimmy Buffett said on a chilly afternoon during September of 2021, bundled up on stage at the Pine Knob Music Theatre in suburban Detroit before his concert there that night.
“I’m still out here,” he continued. “Where would I go? Retirement doesn’t look so interesting to me these days. That’s kind of an old way of thinking, retiring at 60. I still think I’m 40!”
Buffett, whose death on Friday night at the age of 76 came as a surprise to the Parrothead nation worldwide, did seem eternally useful, perpetually in a Margaritaville state of mind even if he had to wear a thermal shirt under his tropical print one. His creativity matched that state of mind: 31 albums, four No. 1 books (three novels and a memoir) on The New York Times Best-Seller list, two children’s books, two theater pieces (Don’t Stop the Carnival With Herman Wouk and the jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville), restaurants, record labels, beer and cannabis brands. Enough to lose track of.
The Buffett who I was lucky enough to interview many times, starting in 1992 and continuing for more than 30 years, was nothing less than a wonderful guy and a great character. The wit and irreverence of his music and stage performances was evident in every conversation, along with a craftsman’s dedication to songwriting, recording and performing that co-existed comfortably with shrewd awareness of the best way to go about Buffett business. Buffett was an auteur and raconteur, the two complementing each other to generate one of the most impactful entertainment empires ever, especially for someone who had just one Top 10 single over the course of a 51-year recording career.
In light of his passing, we’ve mined those three-plus decades of interviews for a Buffett quote bag. There are pearls of wisdom and good-humored quips, maybe a few profundities, but more than anything comments that offer a sense of the man anybody would want to have a cheeseburger with, in paradise or anywhere else.
Jimmy Buffett in His Own Words
1. “I’ve never been one to try to force the magic, so I just wanted to write some good songs and get some good songs by other people and just make a Jimmy Buffett record, which is just what I did. We just supply the demand that’s out there.”
2. “I’m gonna go out there and do what people like us to do. I learned a long time ago that they’re not really that interested in some kind of rapid departure or me doing my version of Thelonious Monk or something. They want their ‘Margaritaville’ and ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ and ‘Volcano’ and ‘Fins…’ And that’s okay. We like to keep ’em happy…and maybe throw a curve ball at ’em every now and again.”
3. “I’ve felt for a long time I didn’t get respect for what I did. It’s been a very quiet thing. When everyone else they expected to do big [touring] business didn’t, and we stood out, people did a double take. It was, ‘Jimmy Buffet?!’ We thought he was down on the beach drinking margaritas!'”
4. “I think if you’re an artist, you have to try to get yourself in a situation where you know who you want to sell to, and where they are. You want to find your audience and build a loyal following that trusts you and is interested in buying the different things you put out, like adding items to a collection. Then you don’t have to worry about if radio’s going to play it or if MTV will show your video — well, they don’t show videos now but…”
5. “We’re not out there trying to make any mark these days. That’s beyond any interest to me. I just want to do something people could add to their collection. I just want to make records for Parrotheads and people who love Jimmy Buffett music.”
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6. “But at the same time I don’t want to be repetitive. I want it to have some newness, but you’ll still know it’s us.”
7. “I don’t aspire to challenge radio, who had never played me before, or MTV. I have better things to worry about than that…I like having the freedom to do that without anybody saying, ‘Aren’t you worried about having a hit?'”
8. “They’re looking for the Jimmy Buffett hit single. They still don’t have a clue what I do. And they don’t have a clue to let me alone and do it and then go out and sell it to all the people that come to my shows.”
9. “I don’t apologize for being a businessman as well as being a performer. As an artist, it’s amazing what you will do when you realize that what you do affects what you get, directly, as opposed to doing all the [things] you used to have to do for record companies — and then fight for your money. It’s like getting equity in yourself. If you can get yourself in a position where you can be in charge of your own fate, that’s a good thing. I think the more kids that see you have to do that in this business, the less train wrecks you’re going to have down the road to success.”
10. “I don’t want to be on Behind the Music, you know, the soap opera of ‘We made our money, we did drugs, we got divorced and we’re gonna come back.’ I’d like to avoid that scenario as much as possible.”
11. “If I did as much dope and drank as much as people think I do, I’d have been dead 10 years ago…I’ve got a lot of things to get done, so I’m planning on sticking around a long time.”
12. “I have tried over the years, to live below the radar when it comes to the ‘celebrity’ thing. I see what I do as just a job, a really fun job that has opened the world, its people and places. However, I seem to still have a way of causing commotion now and then.”
Listen to Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Margaritaville’
13. “I was the worst control freak for a while. I’ve been working on that. I’ve got good people who work with me; it’s fun to have ideas and then get people to implement them. The older you get, you decide it’s more fun to get the kids and go fishing…That helps you straighten your priorities a little bit.”
14. “I do take a lot of satisfaction at the fact that we have kind of beat the system.”
15. “I wasn’t a terribly explosive pop, Top 40 guy. I was a nuts and bolts, go out and work and find your audience kind of guy. And what I found out by doing that is you were able to actually make more money that way. And the bottom line would go to you for your hard work rather than to a record company, so you kind of gained your independence by staying on the road and building your audience there, rather than just through record sales. That way you could deal with a record company and not have to be completely reliant upon them for your existence.”
16. “I think the music business is fine. I think the record business is kind of over. It’s like this big boat that broke up on the reef, and when it did that there are people finding a channel through there, and the voyage goes on. It’s an interesting time. It’s probably more difficult if you’re new and trying to break out, I know, but for somebody who has control over their work and has a loyal following, like I do, it’s a pretty good time.”
17. “If I wanted to, I could go out and book 200 dates a year and make tons of money. That’s not what it’s about. I want to make this as pleasing for me as it is to everyone else who comes to the shows. I don’t want to talk out there and feel like it’s a job.”
18. “What I’d like to do is go to places and maybe play a big show and a little show. I like the fact that I can go in and play clubs. What I’d really love to do is play on a beach — roast hot dogs, have rum drinks…maybe uplink it on a satellite for everyone to enjoy.”
19. (On country music) “I do have a history there. I came out of there. [Buffett worked for the music trade publication Billboard in Nashville during the late ’60s] I’d say probably until recent times, 80% of the stuff we recorded was done in Nashville, and I lived there on two different occasions, though I was never really the mainstream of whatever contemporary country was. But it was always fun to write country music; ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw’ was and still is a hoot, and that was a stone country song, in its own way.”
20. “It’s obvious [country artists] have been kind of borrowing from me for a long time — the Eagles and me and a couple other people. What country music is today sure sounds a lot like what we did in the late ’70s.”
21. (On “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” with Alan Jackson.) “I met him a couple years ago. I met him and George Strait out fishing in the Bahamas and didn’t know them very well. It was a perfect place to get to know him. He was a fan, which I was honored by, and he’s a very nice guy.”
Watch Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s ‘It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere’ Video
22. “You get Paul McCartney talking to you about what you ought to do on an album, and you listen. I played him some stuff and he gave me some feedback. He said, ‘Let it breathe a little more, just kind of let it go along and make it light.’ It was good feedback — and then you go outside and go, ‘Fuck! That’s Paul McCartney!’ You can’t get over that.”
23. “What I took out of that experience [with Herman Wouk on Don’t Stop the Carnival] was, I think, a better way to write. I know after that I spent a lot more time with lyrics and structure than I ever had in my life, because it was a necessary part of doing that show, and some of that ethic just kind of held on for the music.”
24. “You know, a lot of creative stuff had gone into the musical on Broadway [Escape to Margaritaville] and the rewrites and writing songs that never got in the show. Then the show went on the road, where it had a very successful two-year run until we had to shut it down because of the pandemic. So those two things really kind of kept a lot of writing time going. And then when I thought about doing an album you think: Would you really do an album anymore, with the way things are going, or would you just put a couple songs out? But in the end, we are just too old school and we just wanted to do it the old way and go in and make a record in the studio.”
25. “I’m glad I got 50 years of albums in me. This thing’s been an absolute joy, and always a surprise that we’re still out there. We’ve figured out ways to keep it going. I think it’s really about learning to be a performer before anything else and always trying to better yourself on stage. That’s the key, that core experience, and what’s kept me going. It’s been a good run, and I don’t think we’re done.”
26. “I remember when I was talking to Harry Belafonte once, and he looked so good. I asked him, ‘How many times did you threaten to retire when you were 45?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Man, you haven’t got a chance…’ It’ll probably happen one day, but, you know, there are people out there who want to see me. A lot of people would be envious to have this, so I’m not gonna look at gift horse in the mouth.”
27. “I’m still on top of my game, which I never thought I’d be at this age . I’m just figuring out where to go next.”
28. “I feel very proud of surviving. I’m still out there — where would I go? Retirement doesn’t look so interesting to me these days. That’s kind of an old way of thinking, retiring at 60. Come on — I still think I’m 40!”
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