Jimmy Buffett: A Key West Icon

December 12, 2011 in American literature, Pop Culture

Jimmy Buffett is a tropical legend. With so much of his life and work based around the atmosphere of Key West, it’s easy to forget that Buffett wasn’t always an easy-going beach boy. In fact, Buffett was born on December 25, 1946 in Alabama, where he spent the majority of his childhood. He developed an interest in music early, learning several instruments, including the guitar and trombone, during childhood.

He went to university in Mississippi, then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in order to work as a correspondent for Billboard magazine, one of the premier music magazines in the country. Buffett focused on composing country music, not the tropical, beachy style he is known for. His love for music never abated, and although he was working as a writer, he also began performing his music in public in Nashville and in New Orleans, Louisiana. Though he loved the culture of New Orleans and the people around him in Nashville, Buffett’s life completely changed when another musician, Jerry Jeff Walker, invited him to visit the Keys.

Buffett became immediately enamored of Key West’s history, its inhabitants, and its culture. In an interview, Buffett once stated that for him, one of the most incredible things about the Keys was “that it was completely virgin territory, completely different from what [he’d] left behind.” The people he met were larger than life, the bars teeming with great stories waiting to be told. The relaxed lifestyle in which people could go out onto the beach to catch their food, make love, smoke marijuana, and simply while away the hours resonated with him. And in addition to all that, Buffett fell madly in love with the islands’ history: the smuggling heritage, the Native American history, the literary heritage, the slave and gold trades, and of course, the pirates.

Buffett was inspired by these elements and befriended talented artists, pirates, drug smugglers, drunks, and tourists alike, often ending up in jail overnight and finding work in various Key West staple establishments. Unwilling to return back to Nashville, he remained in Key West for some time, and his music truly began to shape itself into his characteristic musical style. By combining what he saw, lived, and breathed in Key West with warm, tropical lyrics and a love for pop, folk, country, and coastal music, he invented his own brand of music, often referred to as “gulf and western.” His music gradually became popular with denizens of Key West and outsiders alike, and when his number one single “Margaritaville” was released in 1977, it became the unofficial anthem of Key West.

Even though Buffett comes and goes to the islands these days, he’s become as much of a Key West figurehead as legendary author Ernest Hemingway. Through his music, literature, and Margaritaville brand, Jimmy Buffett turned his love for this culture into a lifestyle and business venture and, forty years later, continues to transport the tropical feel of the Florida Keys to households all over the world.

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