Sep 2, 2023 - News

Remembering Jimmy Buffett, who got his musical start in Nashville

Photo: Frederick Breedon IV/Getty Images

Iconic singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who carved out a one-of-a-kind corner on the pop music landscape, melding escapist singalongs into a beach-themed business empire, died Friday at age 76.

  • His family said Buffett died peacefully surrounded by family members, friends, his music and his dogs.

Buffett's boat ride to pop music superstardom began in landlocked Nashville with a bottle of champagne at a long-since-closed restaurant called Julian's in the mid-1970s.

Flashback: Sitting across the table from the singer-songwriter that fateful night was Norbert Putnam, the former bass player in the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, who became a hit-making producer.

  • "He ordered me a bottle of [C]ristal, which was my favorite champagne, so I figured we had at least that in common," Putnam told journalist Dan Daley for SoundonSound.com. "He said he wanted to do something more progressive and he wanted me to do it with him. And he wanted to use his band, the Coral Reefers."

Zoom in: Up to that point, Nashville had not been kind to Buffett, who struggled to achieve commercial success. He recorded two solo albums. One didn't sell many copies at all and the other was shelved by his record label and not released for several years.

  • After a few drinks, Putnam said Buffett's vision of ocean-infused music "didn't sound so bad anymore."
  • Putnam told Buffett that if he wanted to make records about the ocean, "you have to get next to the ocean." The duo ventured to Miami at Criteria Studios, brought in a group of world-class musicians and went to work on "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes."
  • Anchored by "Margaritaville," the album propelled Buffett's 50-year run of smashing success that coupled his music with a beachy business empire.

The big picture: Though Buffett's stint in Nashville was relatively short, he was at the nexus of almost impossible-to-believe moments that will never be erased from Music City lore.

  • In addition to the dinner meeting with Putnam, there was the night at Quad Studios, which grew into the studio where Nashville's non-country artists would record.
  • Putnam gathered up a bunch of "drunks" who were hanging around the studio and turned them into the backing choir for Joan Baez's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

Buffett also famously played the first-ever show at the historic rock and roll club Exit/In. He wandered into the club inquisitively, asking what the new club was about.

  • Exit/In co-founder Brugh Reynolds recalled in a 2015 documentary how Buffett left the club and returned with his guitar. "I think he played a few things for us, and so Jimmy Buffett was the first act to ever play the Exit/In."
  • Buffett celebrated the moment in 2021 when he played a concert to commemorate Exit/In's 50th anniversary.

"He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many," a statement on X says.

Go deeper: Read Nashville Scene reporter Stephen Elliott's story about Buffett's Nashville years.

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