Ask any Jimmy Buffett fan and they’re tell you that his music isn’t just catchy, it’s a state of mind.
Widely known for hits like “Margaritaville,” “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” and “Come Monday,” the beloved singer died of skin cancer at 76 on Friday. And following the news, thousands of devoted fans — affectionately known as “Parrotheads” — began simultaneously mourning and celebrating their laid-back idol.
“Soundtrack to my life”
The term Parrothead (also styled as Parrot Head) was coined by Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit, who was moonlighting in Buffett’s band in the 1980s. During one gig, he looked out upon a sea of fans clad in tropical-themed attire that included Hawaiian shirts and, yes, parrot hats. His joking remark became adopted by a fan nation that is coming to the grips with a tremendous loss.
“His lyrics are the soundtrack to my life,” says Suzanne Calhoun, board member of the national organization Parrots Head In Paradise (PHIP), which has more than 200 U.S. chapters and has raised nearly $60 million for various charities over the years.
Calhoun, also president of PHIP’s Austin outpost, says Buffett’s songs reflect the simple pleasures in life: a cold drink, good company, tropical adventures, self-discovery and a touch of “humor and playfulness,” offering an escape to those who dream of living the beachside lifestyle — but can’t.
To pay tribute to his memory, Parrot Heads in the Austin area gathered on Monday at the Mexican restaurant High 5 (formerly known as Cocina del Sur), where Buffett began writing the song that became “Margaritaville” while drinking at the bar. He finished his signature tune while driving on the highway on his way to Florida.
“A couple of our local musicians played tribute songs,” she says of the event. “A bunch of our club members raised a toast to Jimmy and all of the amazing things he’s brought to our lives.”
An even bigger tribute is set for October’s annual Meeting of the Minds in Gulf Shores, Ala., where Buffett will be sent out in style with an infusion of “Trop Rock” bands (shorthand for “Tropical Rock,” describing Buffett’s easy-going blend of folk, rock and Caribbean sounds) and community tithings.
“We’re going to do a tribute to Jimmy on the first night,” says Calhoun. “We’re also raising money for Jimmy’s primary charity called Singing for Change,” giving funds to local nonprofits across the country.
The idea of “partying with a purpose,” is part of the Parrothead ethos, she says: “We can live an escapist lifestyle while also giving back to our communities. Jimmy taught us that.”
Calhoun is far from alone. The day after Buffett’s death, fans from coast to coast — Fort Meyers, Fla., to San Diego, New York City to the singer’s hometown of Pascagoula, Miss. — raised a “5 o’clock” toast in Buffett’s memory (an homage to the singer’s seminal ode to happy hour).
And, as several Parrotheads tell Yahoo Entertainment, more fans will be flocking to beachside bars and restaurants this month to give hardy farewells.
“Jimmy Buffett was so much larger than life”
Kevin Carstens, president of Music City Phins, the Nashville chapter of PHIP, says while Buffett’s death was a “shock to our systems,” hundreds of Parrotheads celebrated his life with two Labor Day weekend festivals.
“The musicians redid their sets to include stories and songs from Jimmy and there was a spontaneously assembled tribute,” Carstens recalls of the festivities. “There were tears everywhere all weekend as we would hear something, see a tribute that was especially meaningful or hear one of his songs that caught us very differently now than it did just two days before.”
Meanwhile in Key West, Fla., club president Eddie Kertis was present when thousands of Parrotheads took to the streets to celebrate Buffett’s memory in a New Orleans-style second-line parade, which came together in less than 24 hours, he explains.
“One of the local business people put it together,” he says of the event. “In 16 hours, she got the permit, got the police paid for and had everything put together. It was amazing. The spirit was festive and people were bawling. It was a big, happy occasion.”
Those festivities continued at a local bar where Buffett began his career. “He used to play for drinks,” Kertis says of the singer’s Key West beginnings. “Jimmy was the greatest songwriter that’s ever been known, but what he’s really done is bring millions of people together as a big family.”
“Jimmy Buffett was so much larger than life,” he continues. “Jimmy Buffett loved his fans more than we loved him. And he was respectful. He was not distant. If you ran into him anywhere and wanted to talk or get a picture, he would do it.”
“Like losing a beloved family member”
John Patton, president of the Little Rock, Ark., PHIP chapter, says Buffett’s music “has been changing lives for decades.”
“It’s an escape from the traffic, difficult workplaces, and general stressors of our lives. It takes us to places that we want to live but can’t,” he says. Throughout the month, Little Rock club members plan on paying tributes in other ways.
“We’ve asked our members to submit their favorite songs and one of our club musicians, Paul Tull, will play the songs for those in attendance,” he says of the club’s next meetup later this month, which will also have members bring mementoes from past concerts.
“It’s like losing a beloved family member,” says Tull of their shared grief.
“Jimmy will live forever”
In Central Oklahoma, a chapter with more than 300 members, president Dan Johnson says Parrotheads are collaborating with their friends in Tulsa, where the state’s only Margaritaville restaurant is located, where “people are planning even bigger things.”
That includes an event called Jamaican Me Crazy at the Oklahoma State Fair on Sept. 20, where drinking, toasts and music is par for the course.
“Being a Parrothead changes your life,” Johnson says. “You start doing things you didn’t do as much before. You travel more, and that travel typically brings you to the Caribbean and the beach. It’s certainly changed my life. It’s made me much more open.”
One song that embraces the mantra, according to Johnson, is one of Buffett’s last songs, “Bubble’s Up,” an unreleased track Johnson views as the singer’s “farewell song.” The lyrics include:
Bubbles up they will pоint you towards home / No matter hоw deеp or how far you roam / They will shоw уоu the surface / The plot and thе purpose / Ѕo when the jоurney gеtѕ long / Јust know that you all love.
“We’re still here and we’ll grow stronger,” says Johnson of the song’s message, a call to action for fans everywhere to never give up on paradise.
“Jimmy,” says Johnson in a sentiment surely embraced by all Parrotheads, “will live on forever.”