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In Key West, where Jimmy Buffett met his muse, tributes pour in

A small flower shrine appeared outside Margaritaville in Key West, Florida on Saturday. There were more flowers outside Shrimp Boat Sound, Jimmy Buffett’s low-key recording studio along the docks of the historic seaport, where the singer’s fans also dropped off a six-pack of beers, a copy of one of his books and, of course, a salt shaker.

For residents of the southernmost city in the continental United States, Saturday was a day to mourn and toast the singer who died Friday at age 76 and who, with his 1977 anthem “Margaritaville”, was made famous as well as his former home.

The Key Westers posted tributes on social media, sent well wishes to the Margaritaville restaurant and store — the Buffett businesses that started here and grew into an empire of hotels, products like Landshark Lager, and more again – and have started planning a Mr. Buffett birthday celebration. “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” was a chart-topping country duet Mr. Buffett recorded with singer Alan Jackson in 2003.

Megan Burgess, 55, learned of the singer’s death when a friend texted her at 5:35 a.m. She has lived in Key West for 10 years and first visited 20 years ago — because of Mr. Buffett’s music. She fell in love with the island and started coming back every year.

“Every time I left, I cried,” she says. She tried to retain the vibe of Fort Edward, New York, where she worked for the Washington County Department of Social Services, and surrounded herself with memories of Key West and Mr. Buffett. “My little office was like a tropical paradise to get me through until I could come back here.”

Stephanie and Matt Ginthner descended from their home in Islamorada, about 80 miles from Key West, to pay their respects at Shrimp Boat Sound. There are no signs there, but his ownership was an open secret among locals. Ms Ginthner, 31, grew up going to Mr Buffett shows with her parents, singing raunchy lyrics before she understood them. Spending the winters in Hunterdon, New Jersey, she longed to visit the Florida Keys.

The music “made you happy,” she says. “It made you dream that there was something more to life. When I got here I understood, and it got into my soul and I couldn’t leave.

For several generations now, Mr. Buffett’s music has helped define Key West for the world and, to some extent, for himself. He arrived on the island in the early 1970s, when the island was in economic and cultural transition.

The naval base that had been the backbone of the local economy for decades was about to close. Large-scale tourism, which would eventually be fueled in part by portraits of Mr. Buffett, had yet to begin. Many locals turned to smuggling marijuana, just as they had turned to rum during Prohibition. And just like back then, many local authorities turned a blind eye.

He used this place “as a muse,” said Cori Convertito, 45, curator and historian at the Key West Art and Historical Society. “The attitude, the drug dealing, the way the 70s were, for his attitude and his outlook on his own life.”

Dr Convertito added: “It was exactly what he needed as a form of inspiration. This island had no shortage of characters at the time.

With “Margaritaville,” “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes,” and other songs, Mr. Buffett rose to national fame and became as much of an icon for Key West as another artist who arrived during an economic downturn: Ernest Hemingway.

Both discovered a small subtropical town with a non-judgmental attitude and colorful people, from local fishermen to fellow artists. And even though Hemingway won a Nobel Prize and people are still lining up to visit his Key West home, Mr. Buffett’s influence there is more significant, Ms. Convertito said.

She said she was surprised at how many locals were posting tributes to the singer – people she didn’t consider fans.

“There’s something about the way he’s built his empire on that laid-back attitude: everyone’s relaxed, having a drink, going on the water,” she said. “Even if you don’t particularly like his songs, you like what his songs refer to.”

Mr. Buffett left the Keys as his primary residence in the late 1970s. According to William McKeen’s 2011 book “Mile Marker Zero” Mr. Buffett and his wife, Jane, “were starting a family, and if there One thing Jane Buffett knew was that Key West was no place to raise a child. »

But Mr. Buffett stayed at his island home and came to fish, record in his studio and, occasionally, make impromptu appearances at the Margaritaville Café or the Meeting of the Minds, the annual fall gathering of the Parrot Heads, like his fans are affectionately called.

‘He continued to keep a low profile here as long as he could,’ said Tony Falcone, 78, also who arrived in Key West in the 1970s and owner of the Fast Buck Freddie’s store which shared the old Kress building on Duval Street with Margaritaville. “As Key West grew in popularity, it was more difficult.”

“He sold the Key West concept and idea because he loved Key West,” Falcone said. “And he stayed with that. His music never really changed, and I think that’s what people liked about him. It’s that fantasy of living in Margaritaville.

Mr. Buffett played his last gigs on the island in February, when he began his Second Wind tour at the city amphitheater on former Navy property along the Key West harbor. Tickets sold out quickly, with prices pushed up by resellers, disappointing many locals who had been drawn to the Keys, at least in part by Mr. Buffett’s portrayals of the location.

Ms Burgess secured a few tickets through a last-minute hook-up and said it was Buffett’s best eight-to-ten show she’s seen over the years. The singer has opened up about his origins on the island, 50 years after releasing his first Key West-inspired tracks.

“The joy of this show was palpable,” she said.

A few days after the amphitheater shows were sold out, news spread locally that Mr. Buffett was adding a few more, at a local theater. These tickets were not available online: you had to queue at the ticket office and show local ID, and you could only get two at a time.

Just like in the good old days.


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