Make your avocation your vocation

By Leisa Boley Hellwarth

Nibblin’ on sponge cake
Watchin’ the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil
Strummin’ my six string
On my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp, they’re beginnin’ to boil

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame
But I know, it’s nobody’s fault

Jimmy Buffett died on September 1, 2023, and we lost one of our finest entertainers and a national treasure. What does this have to do with agriculture? As the late law professor, Morgan Shipman, used to opine, nothing and everything.

Jimmy Buffett was born on Christmas Day in 1946 in Mississippi. And he was the son of a son of a sailor, as his grandfather was a steamship captain from Newfoundland. Buffett described his younger self as a simple Catholic alter boy who wanted to play bass in a band so he could meet girls. The first band he joined, he was the only one with credit at the music store. Since he signed for the PA system, he became the leader of the band. Is it any surprise that at his death Buffett was considered one of the wealthiest musicians with a net worth of over a billion dollars? Not bad for someone who described his voice as adequate and his guitar playing as average.

Buffett paid his way through the University of Southern Mississippi by playing guitar and singing on the weekends in New Orleans. After he graduated with a history degree, he took a job in Nashville with “Billboard” magazine, as a journalist, while pursuing his musical career. The problem was Nashville didn’t know what to make of Buffett. He just didn’t fit their country mold.

And that turned out to be a blessing. Buffett ended up in Key West in the bohemian 1970s and developed his unique style that some call gulf and western. Buffett referred to it as drunken Caribbean rock and roll. Specifically, it included a combination of calypso, rock, folk, country and pop arising out of his lived experiences and keen sense of humanity. Buffett embraced a genre and promoted the mythical, magical Margaritaville. It was pure island escapism. Buffet created a lifestyle brand, and it all derived from one hit record in 1977, Margaritaville.

Buffett’s career spanned over 50 years. He had only a few hits. He was never weighed down with awards. His concert tours were legendary because he could sell out nearly anywhere in the country.

Fans of all ages gathered, especially boomers, many wearing parrots on hats. It was actually a performance in Mason, Ohio that led a member of the Eagles to coin the phrase “Parrot Head.” Timothy B. Schmit looked out at the crowd wearing parrot caps and thought of the Grateful Dead fans known as Dead Heads. He decided Buffet’s fans were Parrot Heads.

Buffett understood that to be successful in entertainment, you have to understand business. He believed in giving the people what they wanted, his description of the law of supply and demand. While describing his restaurant, Margaritaville, he said the people wanted hamburgers and margaritas. Why would he serve them sushi? The original Margaritaville restaurant was opened by Buffett in 1987 so he would always have a place to play live music, in the event his career tanked.

I visited that restaurant in 1991. It was casual and friendly and served amazing food. You could also purchase Jimmy Buffett merchandise there. At the cash register there was a hand printed sign that read, “Shoplifters will be bound and gagged and forced to listen to Barry Manilow.” Classic quirky Buffett.

That restaurant led to a chain of 24 restaurants at last count. And there were hotels; casinos; cruise experiences; packaged food; beverages; spirits; beer; outdoor furniture; home goods; appliances, apparel; accessories; record label; retirement communities; and video games, just to name a few.

Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band were one of this country’s most successful touring acts for decades. Buffett knew that hard working people came to his concerts to escape. And he promised them two hours of a tropical vacation. Every gig included the “Big 8” songs that were especially loved by his fans. (Margaritaville; Come Monday; Fins; Volcano; A pirate looks at forty; Cheeseburger in paradise; Why don’t we get drunk; and Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes.) More supply and demand.

Buffett believed in keeping operating expenses low. He explained that many touring acts brag about how many semis are driven to a concert with all of the required lighting, speakers and equipment. Apparently, it is not uncommon to command 16 semis for a venue. Buffett proudly kept his requirement to 4 semis. He did, however, purchase many semis that he then rented out to other entertainers.

Jimmy Buffett was authentic. He didn’t need a stylist to pick out Hawaiian shirts and tropical tees, shorts and flip flops. He didn’t utilize a focus group to determine what people liked. One single in 1977 launched a brand because Buffett knew hard working folks needed to have a respite, if only in their mind. In a “60 Minutes” interview from years back, Buffett recounted receiving letters from surgeons who played his music in the operating rooms because it calmed them. I recall the summer of 1994 when I spent all of my waking moments either working or studying for the Ohio Bar Exam. And I played Jimmy Buffett non-stop.

Buffett made a lot of money, and he also gave a lot back. His favorite causes were disaster relief and environmental issues. He often advised others to “be a Santa Claus when you can.” Buffett believed that if you can make your avocation your vocation, your life can be blissful. His 76 years are a beautiful example of exactly that.

Buffett once remarked that “if there is a heaven for me, I’m sure it has a beach attached.”

Rest in peace, Jimmy Buffett.

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