In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
When news spread on September 2nd that Jimmy Buffett had passed away at age 76, Parrotheads everywhere were consoled by Radio Margaritaville, the popular SiriusXM channel created by Buffett 18 years ago. Caller tributes and recent live concerts continued through Labor Day weekend to celebrate the remarkable career of the Son of a Son of a Sailor who left port for the last time to parts unknown.
Buffett leaves behind a legacy that began as a vibe and evolved into a billion-dollar entertainment and business empire built over five decades. The legendary songwriting-singer and tireless concert performer created an amazing body of work blessed with commercial success. Over 30 studio albums (17 going gold, platinum, or multiplatinum) were produced, along with another 30 compilation, live, or specialty albums, and 67 singles. Covers, in their various forms, were a significant part of Buffett’s repertoire; nearly 100 of them are listed on SecondHandSongs.com, the popular website that keeps track of such things.
Buffett, along with his Coral Reefer Band, successfully developed the “Gulf & Western” island-influenced musical genre into its own casual lifestyle brand. While not always critically admired, the music’s popularity is undeniable.
Let’s raise a mast and look out over the horizon at Buffett’s most interesting cover choices from his storied career…
I. Live from Margaritaville
Buffett’s raucous tours remained largely unchanged for thirty of their forty years, built largely around originals known by Parrotheads as the “Big 8”: “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.” A few covers were added to the 8 and several more were performed frequently over the decades.
Southern Cross (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
Buffett included the 1982 CSN classic to his live show in 1996 and has allegedly performed it over 800 times, so yes, you can call it a staple. All the crowd-pleasing elements exist – sailing lyrics and soft rock with Buffett’s big (Coral Reefer) band production. This version is from 1999’s Buffett Live: Tuesday, Thursdays, Saturdays. Rolling Stone just wrote about the version performed at Buffett’s last full gig on May 6th here.
Brown Eyed Girl (Van Morrison cover)
The Van Morrison hit was included on 1983’s One Particular Harbour, Buffett’s 12th studio effort, and the single made it to No. 13 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. Steel drums, a now ubiquitous Buffett element, were added for island-flair. Fun live versions with horns here and here.
Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads cover)
Frequently heard on Radio Margaritaville, Buffett adapted some lyrics and added the ever-present steel drums to complete the island ambiance. From a 2007 live show in East Troy, Wisconsin, an entertaining version of Talking Heads’ classic from Remain in Light (1980).
Everybody’s Talkin’ (Fred Neil cover)
Covered on Meet Me in Margaritaville: The Ultimate Collection (2003) and multiple live albums. Buffet’s studio version emphasizes a more mature sounding vocal, relative to the classic Harry Nilsson 1968 definitive version, along with a slightly slower reggae beat and Tina Gullickson’s backing vocal. Reportedly, this would be the only cover performed during Buffett’s final public appearance. He joined Reefer guitarist Peter Mayer on stage for a few songs during Mayer’s June 11th show at The Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, New York.
Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan cover)
For this one-off at the 2008 Newport Folk Festival, the master storyteller shares an interesting intro before his acoustic homage to the classic 1963 Dylan protest song. From the 2010 Encores album, featuring only the second, mainly solo, encores from Buffett’s 2008/2009 tours.
Lawyers Guns and Money (Warren Zevon cover)
Recorded live from the 1999 Millennium Concert at the Universal Amphitheater, Buffett and band add harmonica, horns, and great guitar work by Mac McAnally. Of course, the Zevon story/lyrics are right in Buffett’s wheelhouse. The original appeared on 1978s Excitable Boy. [Note: Awful fan video, but an above average recording.]
Tiki Bar Is Open (John Hiatt cover)
Buffett turns the rocking John Hiatt original (2001) into a jazzy big band romp. Appeared on 2003s Live in Las Vegas, NV, from the series of live sound board albums Buffett released between 2003-2005.
Jamaica Farewell (Lord Burgess cover)
Easy to hear why the Harry Belafonte 1956 hit penned by Lord Burgess is a natural addition to the setlist. The forward calypso beat and Buffett’s signature sonic elements make for a relaxing listen from 1990’s Feeding Frenzy: Jimmy Buffett Live!
II. Forever Grateful
Scarlet Begonias (Grateful Dead cover)
From 2004’s License to Chill, additional studio production in the form of McAnally’s guitar break, supplemental female backing vocals, and strong keys, the studio version at four and a half minutes ends too early. Became a highly popular concert favorite where the jamming can be extended. Bridges whatever gap that may have existed between Deadheads and Parrotheads. The Dead debuted the original in 1974 on From the Mars Hotel.
Uncle John’s Band (Grateful Dead cover)
After a five-year book-writing hiatus between studio albums, Buffett came back with Fruitcakes, his eighteenth, in 1994. Add those steel drums, tasteful keys, and a slight country-twist to Buffett-ize the 1970 Dead classic.
Ripple – Various Artists (Grateful Dead cover)
Buffett only contributes a verse on this star-studded collaboration, but the production and purpose called for its inclusion. Features the Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann, David Crosby, and other global stars supporting 2015’s Playing For Change initiative. The video has garnered over 10.4 million views. The original was released in 1970 and is included on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
III. Critical Faves
Trip Around the Sun – Jimmy Buffett & Martina McBride (Stephen Bruton cover)
Billboard and Rolling Stone magazine included the duet on their respective, recently published, “Best of Buffett” lists, making it the only cover to appear on both lists. Billboard’s “Twenty Best Songs: Critics Picks” cited the contemporary (country) sound of the 2004 release from License to Chill, while Rolling Stone’s “15 Essential Songs” focused on the lyrics’ reflection about life and the stylistic differences between Buffett’s and Stephen Bruton’s modern reggae-influenced 1998 original.
Nobody From Nowhere (DADDY feat. Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack cover)
Billboard simply called the track “a cool, slightly country-flavored groove that slow burns into a gospel-tinged soul chorus” and “A gem that merits more attention and appreciation.” Vocal production is strong from both Buffett and his Coral Reefer back-up singers. Mac McAnally brings a great lead guitar break. Buffett’s audio mix brings more prominent keyboards, again making for a superior version. A common theme with Buffett collaborators, both Kimbrough and Womack played on the 2009 Buffett Hotel album. Performing as the band DADDY, their original was released six months prior to the Buffett version.
Banana Republics (Steve Goodman cover)
Buffett’s seventh studio album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (1977), would be the one to catapult the artist to superstardom. Along with his biggest hit, “Margaritaville,” he would include young composer/collaborator Steve Goodman’s original reggae ballad about ex-pats in the tropics. Here, he extends the original, improves the audio production, and adds what had already become his trademark instrumental bits. Rolling Stone cited Buffett’s interpretation of the lyrics in the context of the song’s release at the height of punk rock. Goodman would release his version a year prior, an oft-repeated pattern with Buffett covers.
IV. Lost Shakers of Salt
Buffett’s catalog contains plenty of covers from collaborators, friends, and musical icons. There’s John Sebastian, B.J. Thomas, Dan Fogelberg, Bruce Cockburn, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Don Gibson, Jesse Winchester, Will Kimbrough, John Prine, Alex Harvey, Steve Goodman, Leon Russell and many more. Here are some standouts from the seemingly endless list:
Mexico (James Taylor cover)
A wistful opening quickly picks up the beat with horn and xylophone embellishments added to the JT original. “Consistent with Buffett’s philosophy” said Allmusic of the track in their review of Barometer Soup, his 19th studio album released in 1995 – twenty years after Taylor’s debut.
Gumbo (Phish cover)
Buffett contributed the track to Sharin’ In The Groove: Celebrating the Music of Phish (2001), a tribute supporting music education for kids. He and the band do a great job tightening up the loose funk of the original. Horns are re-deployed in this version and the pacing is more reggae than acid/jazz. Instrumental breaks are just as solid here as on the original too – with a head nod to “Rocky Racoon” during the guitar break. The song first swam its way on to Phish’s 1995 A Live One.
Sail On, Sailor (The Beach Boys cover)
Meet Me in Margaritaville (2003) billed as an “Ultimate Collection” album of greatest hits contained this breezy rendition of the Beach Boys perennial hit. Includes (you guessed it) steel drums and Nadirah Shakoor’s backing vocals. First released on The Beach Boys 1973 album Holland.
Weather with You (Crowded House cover)
Crowded House and the Finn Brothers from down under had a nice worldwide hit (Top 50 in 10 countries) with the dreamy track in 1992. Buffett included it on his 26th studio release of Caribbean pop, Take the Weather with You (2006), an album that landed at #1 on Billboard’s Country chart and #4 overall. Subtly, the addition of an extended instrumental break prior to the final chorus features those Coral Reefer steel drums, mandolin, tasteful keyboard fills and more. Overall, a superior production.
Elvis Presley Blues (Gillian Welch cover)
Another track from Take the Weather with You, Buffett turns Welch’s and Dave Rawlings’ sad, acoustic Appalachian love song into a country rocker with perfect lively keyboards and “Folsom Prison Blues” percussion. Welch and Rawlings included their version on 2001’s Time (The Revelator).
Treetop Flyer (Stephen Stills cover)
Buffett hid the bluesy Stephen Stills smuggler’s story on Banana Wind, his twentieth studio album (1996.) Stills tells the Vietnam-era “Life in the Fast Lane/Smuggler’s Blues” tale on his minimalistic Stills Alone (1991). Buffett’s production adds minimal tasty keyboard and percussion to the acoustic-only original.
Defying Gravity (Jesse Winchester cover)
Closing off this group is an oft-used concert closer. Winchester, a friend and award-winning country singer/songwriter, was a frequent Buffet cover contributor. Buffet slows down slightly the Orbison-like ballad, adding pedal steel guitar, light bongos and backing vocals to Winchester’s 1974 original. Appeared on Buffett’s Havana Daydreamin’ (1976) his sixth studio release.
V. Think Crustaceans
Mack the Knife [w/ Frank Sinatra] (Bobby Darin cover)
The Chairman of the Board and Buffet reworked the Darin classic – a cover itself – with a great arrangement that cooks and builds with horns, harmony and call-outs to the all-time greats who came before it. From Sinatra’s Duets II, released in 1994. Darin gave us his version in 1954, but the Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht-penned tune dates back to 1928.
Stars Fell on Alabama (Guy Lombardo cover)
Another fan and concert favorite, Buffett added the 1934 jazz standard to Coconut Telegraph (1980). Buffett croons and adds spoken word shout-outs to the state’s cities on the ballad over top of honky-tonk piano, harmonica, mandolin and more strings. Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish composed the original way back when, and it’s been covered hundreds of times since.
Hey, Good Lookin’ with Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and George Strait (Hank Williams cover)
On our third selection from License to Chill (2004), Buffett brought these Kings of Country together for a swampy zydeco take on Hank Williams’ 1951 classic honored in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Buffett turned his tune into a Live at Texas Stadium concert with Jackson and Strait, which was ultimately nominated for a CMA Event of the Year Award.
Sunny Afternoon (The Kinks cover)
Buffett works in a “Parrotheads and parties” lyric and a snazzy electric violin break to the Kinks’ 1966 British Invasion hit, with the Coral Reefer bands’ usual steel drums and calypso beat taking over Nicky Hopkins’ music hall piano featured in the Ray Davies-penned original. Appeared on Buffett’s 1994 Fruitcakes album.
Mr. Spaceman (The Byrds cover)
An out-of-print novelty cover of the Byrds 1966 hit. Buffett banters with the Muppets on this tolerable, but well-produced, version that’s true to the original. Appears on Kermit Unpigged (1994).
God’s Own Drunk (Lord Buckley cover)
Easily the oddest cover choice in Buffett’s vast collection. A comedy monologue spoken over a bluesy backbeat with piano, he tells a long story involving drinking, a bear, and a still. First appeared on Living And Dying In 3 / 4 Time (1974) and became a pre-Margaritaville crowd-pleaser. (A live version with a pre-amble stretches out over 12 minutes.) The fact that the story, sans music, was nearly an exact copy of comedian Lord Buckley’s 1959 comedy routine drew a lawsuit from Buckley’s estate years later. This in turn elicited a recurring, and humorously vulgar, on-stage response from Buffett.
VI. Waves Goodbye
Like My Dog (Billy Currington cover)
A few days before his passing, Buffett released a 30-second clip of what may be his final cover recording. It’s from his upcoming 2023 album reportedly titled Equal Strain on all Parts. The original was a minor country hit for Billy Currington on Enjoy Yourself (2010).
Coast of Marseilles (Keith Sykes cover)
Accomplished singer-songwriter-producer Sykes contributed two tracks on Buffett’s eighth studio album Son of a Son of a Sailor (1978). Buffett adds a long fade-in and fade-out with lush orchestration in between on this haunting ballad. Sykes released his fine, but sparser, original a year earlier on The Way That I Feel.
I sat there on the coast of Marseilles
My thoughts came by like wind through my hand
How good it’d be to feel you again
How good it’d be to feel that way again
A Pirate Looks at Forty – Kenny Chesney (Jimmy Buffett cover)
Country superstar and Buffet-acolyte Chesney offered this short acoustic beach-side tribute upon hearing the news of the passing of his friend.
Author’s note: Special thanks to singer/songwriter – and 40-year Parrothead – David Clarence Hartranft for providing his valuable insight to this feature. The Pennsylvania musician has performed Buffett and Grateful Dead classics for years under the now-ironic pseudonym of “Dead Jimmy.”