Tragic Details About Jimmy Buffett

The following article includes brief mentions of mental health struggles and suicidal ideation.

Jimmy Buffett tossed country music's twang in a blender with the tropical flavor of Calypso beats, rendering a mellow concoction that's provided his fans with an escape from the daily grind for nearly half a century. His music will continue helping us hang on until happy hour, but sadly, Parrotheads can no longer flock together to listen to the "Margaritaville" singer perform his boozy hits live. On September 1, 2023, Buffett's family shared the tragic news that he had died. He was 76 years old.

On the musician's website, his cause of death was revealed to be a rare and aggressive form of skin cancer, Merkel cell carcinoma. Risk factors for the disease include prolonged sun exposure and having a weakened immune system, according to the National Cancer Insitute. White men over age 50 are at higher risk of developing the cancer.

Buffett is survived by his wife, Jane Slagsvol, and their three children: daughters Savannah Jane and Sarah Delaney and son Cameron Marley. In a statement on the singer's Instagram page, his family revealed that they were with him when he died. "He lived his life like a song till the very last breath and will be missed beyond measure by so many," they wrote. While the story Buffett shares in "He Went to Paris" isn't his own, the song does include a lyric that nicely sums up the way he lived: "Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic / But I had a good life all the way." 

Jimmy Buffett's sister was also diagnosed with cancer

Speaking to People, Jimmy Buffett's sister, Laurie Buffett McGuane, revealed that she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer not long after Buffett learned that he had Merkel cell cancer in 2019. "When Jimmy found out [I had cancer] he brought the whole family and the dogs to Montana to be with me," she recalled. The siblings spoke often while they were undergoing treatment, and they both endured the additional hardship of being cancer patients with weakened immune systems at the start of a deadly pandemic. Laurie's treatment was ultimately successful, while her brother's sadly was not. "We shared a club that nobody wants to join. I am thunderstruck that Jimmy didn't make it," McGuane said.

McGuane reminisced about how she and her sister, Lucy, swapped childhood stories for Buffett's benefit during their visits with him while he was sick, and she shared that it pained her brother that he had to start canceling his concerts. When he was unable to perform in Charleston in May 2023, Buffett explained that it was because he had to make an unexpected trip to the hospital, but he didn't reveal why. "Growing old is not for sissies, I promise you," he wrote in a statement on Twitter

Buffett's final show was a surprise July 2023 appearance at the Sunset Cove restaurant in Rhode Island. "His last performance was in the Ocean State," the venue's owner told WPRI 12. "You can't make it up."

His car accident inspired a song

The title of Jimmy Buffett's 1974 song "Life is Just a Tire Swing" might bring to mind a simple childhood pleasure, but it's not just about reflecting back on his idyllic, pre-fame days. According to Greg Wahl and Charles Bobbitt's book "It Didn't Play in Peoria: Missed Chances of a Middle American Town," Buffett shared the story behind the song during a 1978 performance at the Robertson Memorial Field House in Peoria, Illinois. He revealed that it was inspired by a car accident he'd survived in Peoria a few years prior. Based on the lyrics, it was no minor fender bender. 

"I fell asleep at the wheel / But was quickly wakened up by a 'Ma Bell' telephone pole / And a bunch of Grant Wood faces screamin', 'Is he still alive?'" he sings. "Through the window I could see it hangin' from a tree / And I knew that I had survived." Wahl and Bobbitt don't reveal whether Buffett told his Peoria concertgoers that his car actually lost a tire that ended up dangling from a branch. (Perhaps the gifted storyteller added this detail as a colorful embellishment).

It was one of Buffett's many brushes with death. He had so many close calls that he wrote in his "A Pirate Looks at Fifty" memoir, "I have always felt that I have a guardian angel riding on my shoulder. I am sure it is a she, and that when I really need her, she will bail my a** out."

A plane crash left him traumatized

Jimmy Buffett was a pilot who loved taking to the sky, but he didn't quite make it there when he attempted a water takeoff during a 1994 trip to Nantucket. In "A Pirate Looks at Fifty," he recalled his struggle to keep his seaplane from rolling in the air before it crashed into the ocean. "My life did not flash before my eyes; no ancestors called to me from white fog on the other side of eternity," he wrote. What did happen was that he hit his head upon impact. Buffett thankfully remained conscious, so as the plane filled with water, he was able to open a window and swim out. A group of friends he'd been fishing with saw what had happened, and by the time they got their boat out to the crash site, Buffett was safely on the wing of the plane.

The enormity of what he had experienced hit Buffett hard when he was reunited with his wife and kids. "I walked into the house and hugged every member of my family as tight as I could and started to cry at the thought of how close I had come to never seeing them again," he wrote.

While it didn't scare Buffett from flying again, he couldn't just shake the accident off. "I called a therapist I'd seen off and on in California to tell him about it — and to say I was having flashbacks," he recalled to The Spokesman-Review.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Jimmy Buffett's near-death experience with Bono

In January 1996, Jimmy Buffett was landing one of his planes, the Hemisphere Dancer, in Negril, Jamaica, when authorities opened fire on the vessel. "We were surrounded by a Jamaican SWAT team. I thought it was a joke until I heard the gunfire," he said in a 1996 Rolling Stone interview. Those on the plane with him at the time included his wife, Jane Slagsvol, their daughter, Sarah Delaney, music producer Chris Blackwell, U2 frontman Bono, and a few of Bono's family members. In his song "Jamaica Mistaica," Buffett sings about being mistaken for a drug smuggler with marijuana on his plane when he was just a hungry tourist with a hankering for some chicken. 

While Buffett's song offers a humorous account of the incident, Bono said that he felt lucky to be alive afterward. "It was absolutely terrifying and I honestly thought we were all going to die. ... It was very scary, let me tell you," he recalled, according to an excerpt from the book "Stop the Press: An Inside Story of the Tabloids in Ireland" published by the Belfast Telegraph. Buffett told The Spokesman-Review that two of the bullets left holes in his beloved seaplane that had to be repaired. However, he didn't let the frightening incident ruin his appetite; he got that chicken, along with quite a tale to tell. "Like all things, it made for a good song," said the tropical troubadour.

He lost some dear friends

Jimmy Buffett befriended many fellow creatives during his adventures, and he had to memorialize a few of them before he himself became the subject of tributes and amusing anecdotes from those grieving his loss. In 2016, he lost two of his dear friends: Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey and author Jim Harrison. After Frey's death, Buffett shared a lengthy statement with Billboard chronicling how his friendship with Frey bolstered his career. Before he was a headlining act, Buffett got to open for the Eagles and fondly recalled how Frey mentioned that he was a fan of "A Pirate Looks at Forty" during their first meeting. "Glenn was a true friend, a true professional, an inspiration and sometimes could be a handful," he wrote. "I cherish great memories of our time spent together and will never forget his kindness that first night and our friendship for all these years."

A few months later, Buffett told Men's Journal how he reacted when he learned about Harrison's death. "I had to go jump in the water to try to make sense of it all," he said. Buffett also published an essay on Literary Hub about the "Legends of the Fall" writer, revealing that they met through Buffett's future brother-in-law, Thomas McGuane. "When I got word from Guy de la Valdene this morning that Jim had died at his desk while he was writing, I was, of course, sad he was gone, but glad he went that way," Buffett wrote.

Jimmy Buffett's frightening fall

During a 2011 performance in Sydney, Australia, Jimmy Buffett tumbled over the edge of the stage while trying to shake hands with a concertgoer, apparently because the bright lights had made it difficult for him to see where the stage ended. Dr. Gordian Fulde happened to be in the crowd and witnessed the horrifying moment the singer fell and hit his head. Fearing the worst, he rushed to the stage to help. 

"There was a sickening thud, a thud you would only hear when someone had suffered a serious head injury," Fulde told Radar. "He was pale white and nothing was happening. He was curled up and wasn't breathing." Fulde was also concerned that Buffett had possibly injured his spine and observed that the singer was bleeding profusely from a head wound. He moved Buffett into a position that would make it easier for him to breathe and checked his pulse, which was thankfully normal.

When an ambulance arrived on the scene, Fulde rode with Buffett and remained with him as he underwent tests at St. Vincent's Hospital nearby. "He required several stitches but was not seriously injured," Fulde wrote in a piece for The Daily Telegraph. Being a true Parrothead, Fulde referenced Buffett's 1994 Nantucket plane crash, saying that it's why the son of a son of a sailor knew that he needed to anchor himself at home for a while to recuperate before getting back on stage again.

His Nashville dreams died and he got divorced

Before Jimmy Buffett found a niche singing about cheeseburgers in paradise and sun-soaked sponge cake, he attempted to use the traditional route to pursue a country music career. Before heading to Nashville, he married his first wife, Margie Washichek. Their Holiday Inn honeymoon in Music City was a portent of things to come; both of Buffett's prized guitars were stolen from his car that night.

To help pay the bills while trying to make it big, Buffett got a job as a Billboard magazine reporter — which he promptly quit when he landed a record deal. Unfortunately, his first album flopped, and he racked up a debt of $7,000 during an attempt to promote it in El Paso. 

Buffett's career frustrations were also putting a strain on his marriage, so he became eager to put Nashville in the rear-view mirror. In "A Pirate Looks at Fifty," he recalled how singer Jerry Jeff Walker once told him that he could visit him at his abode in Florida anytime, and what better time than when he had nothing to lose? "When I had left Nashville that morning, it was thirty-one degrees and raining," he wrote. "I was broke and getting a divorce. My career was in cold storage, and I had a cracked front tooth." But as any Buffett fan worth their margarita salt knows, some sea air and sand would be what saved him from a future singing the blues.

The singer-songwriter had suicidal thoughts

Before performing his 1974 song "Come Monday" on "Late Night" in 1983, Jimmy Buffett told host David Letterman how the song came to be. "This is a song that kept me from killing myself in a Howard Johnson's in Marin County," he shared. "... I was deathly depressed."

The wistful song is about Buffett missing his wife, Jane Slagsvol, whom he wasn't yet married to at the time. "Headin' up to San Francisco / For the Labor Day weekend show ... Honey I didn't know / That I'd be missin' you so," he sings. The poignant lyrics hit even harder now, as Buffett died just as the Labor Day weekend was beginning in 2023. The chorus is about Buffett looking forward to reuniting with Slagsvol on the final day of the long weekend: "Come Monday it'll be all right / Come Monday I'll be holding you tight." In 2015, Buffett filmed an introduction for the song's music video, which stars Slagsvol. In it, he revealed that his truck featured in the video met a sad fate. "It was impounded and crushed into a scrap metal rectangle at Carlos' Junkyard," he said.

Buffett and Slagsvol wed in 1977, but Slagsvol decided to call time on the marriage in 1982. "I didn't have a clue who I was. So I left. I got sober," she told Time. They decided to give their relationship another go nine years later, and in his memoir, Buffett credited therapy for saving their marriage.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

Jimmy Buffett's mother and father died months apart

In May 2003, Jimmy Buffett's father, James Delaney "J.D." Buffett, died from Alzheimer's disease at age 83. Jimmy and his mother were with J.D. in 1995 when he received his heartbreaking diagnosis. "My dad just breathed very deep, looked at us both, laughed his familiar laugh, and in a disbelieving tone said, 'Goddamn,'" Jimmy recalled in "A Pirate Looks at Fifty."

According to Jimmy, his father wasn't happy when he decided to become a musician, but they later put aside their differences. J.D. even eventually expressed pride in his son for chasing his dream, and Jimmy's song "False Echoes" is about his father. "I've never performed that song live. I don't know if I could," the singer told Time in 1998.

Four months after his father's death, Jimmy also lost his mom, Mary Loraine "Peets" Buffett. She was 82. From the sounds of it, she may be somewhat responsible for her son's wanderlust. "My mother taught me to dream and expand my horizons beyond family traditions and my childhood surroundings," Jimmy wrote in his memoir. He also recalled attending Mardi Gras with his mother as a child and being frightened by a float called "Folly Chasing Death." While reflecting back on that moment decades later, Jimmy Buffett shared the lesson he learned from it: "Death will get you in the end, but if you are smart and have a sense of humor, you can thumb your nose at it for a while."