Emory Oxford College Chaplain writes that Jimmy Buffett restored him to wholeness. See how

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Over the weekend when Jimmy Buffett passed away, I have never received more texts, calls, and private messages about someone I have never met. Someone who wasn’t a family member, but I imagine most in my family would say he certainly was for me.

As a young teenager, one weekend in the spring of 1992, I was introduced to the yellow album. You don’t really have to be a fan or follower to know the yellow album with those red letters of Jimmy’s name strewn across the front of it. It contains the classics, all of which were written in a short span of years in the 1970s and the early 1980s. You could count on most of those songs to be sung at every single concert. I should know, I have been to more than 30 concerts over the last 30 years. Each one a gift and its own version of church for me.

I remember going to school the Monday following my introduction to Jimmy Buffett. My high school PE teacher, Fred, was one of the coolest guys I knew and had also been my basketball coach. What everyone knew more than anything about Fred, though, was that he was a huge Buffett fan. From his Caribbean Soul T-shirts, suntan even in the winter, and Buffett song references, it was clear he had been with Buffett from the beginning. In fact, what I learned later is that he had been going to concerts since the concerts started in the early 1970s.

Lyn Pace
Lyn Pace

As a self-absorbed teenager, I thought I knew all there was to know about Buffett after listening to the yellow album. I sidled up next to Fred during PE that Monday morning. “Coach Burnett, I listened to Jimmy Buffett this weekend,” I said confidently. “Oh yeah, what album," he replied. “Oh it had ‘Come Monday’’ and ‘Margaritaville’ on it, you know the yellow...” He cut me off there, put his hand up, and commenced to tell me that he knew the one. But it wasn’t the one I needed to listen to first. He then went to his office and grabbed a cassette copy of A1A, Jimmy’s 1974 album full of the early songs that had grabbed Fred’s attention. Songs that would soon grab my own attention.

I took it home, and it changed my life. I was an awkward, angsty teenager whose parents were separating and would later divorce. I was an only child who didn’t talk about any of that to hardly anyone. Jimmy’s music, storytelling, and ability to give me permission to not take life so seriously saved me. It restored me to a wholeness that reminded me that rest, reflection, and especially play was as much a part of life as anything else. It connected me even more deeply to my faith over the years through Buffett’s love of a good story and his gift for storytelling. This was something, I recognized, he had in common with Jesus. My next step was to buy more albums and to get to a concert.

Later the next year, my mom and stepdad took me to my first Jimmy Buffett concert. The year following that my friend Jason and I went together, and we’ve been traveling to shows together ever since. That friendship was cemented through our love of Buffett, another deep gift Buffett and his music gave me. The concerts were an escape for me, especially when I was studying to be a minister and even more so once doing this work. People have expectations of us in this line of work and, unfortunately, they don’t always line up with the music of Jimmy Buffett. Which is shortsighted. Most of us at a Buffett concert were looking to leave our work and expectations of us behind for a little while. Jimmy and the Coral Reefers provided just that for two and a half hours, and it felt like church to me. It restored me to wholeness. It saved me.

That’s what music like all art can do, save us. Anyone who has a favorite musician or type of music can share a story like mine. Music as salvation, as gift and grace, as that thing that kept us from the brink or allowed us to escape and recharge. It's like a sacrament. The Christian church has named certain things as sacraments, like baptism and Eucharist, but I have long believed that sacraments show up along the way of everyday life. I’ve seen it as part of my vocation to pay attention to them and help others see them. The rafters in the church building catching the sunlight while my son practices piano. A sunset or a moonrise. Lovers holding hands in the park. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We are meant to see that there’s a thin line between the sacred and the secular.

As all the texts and private messages and even a few calls poured in over the weekend, I was in awe of this. In part because of how friendships carry across time and space. But even more because it felt like the kind of response reserved for the death of a family member. I mentioned this to a friend who is a therapist and his words resonated. “Odd as some may think, it’s an even deeper kind of family loss because, even with family, there are some gaps in connection. This is losing a companion, inspiration, friend, therapist to our public self, family self, and that deep private and personal self that is beyond words … from a lifetime of songs, concerts, and a powerful sense of community with others who connect on that unique level.”

We grieve because we have been loved, and I was deeply loved by Jimmy Buffett. Even though we never met. But that’s what music and connection can do.

Lyn Pace is College Chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. He is co-authoring a forthcoming book that will highlight Jimmy Buffett’s life and music, focusing on finding faith and meaning-making in his music. He did not anticipate his death so soon. 

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: How Jimmy Buffett restored me to wholeness MS