Chesney and MacAnally, a longtime member of Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, kicked things off with a faithful acoustic rendition of the seafaring ballad “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” which Chesney also sang in a video tribute to Buffett that he posted shortly after the songwriter’s death in September. Then Jackson joined Brown (performing barefoot and in shorts, in a nod to Buffett) for Buffett’s signature “Margaritaville.” They also debuted a tribute song to Buffett titled “Pirates and Parrots.”
Buffett, who transformed the ironic 1977 song into an empire that encompassed restaurants, resorts, and more, died at 76 following a four-year battle with Merkel cell skin cancer. Before his death, Buffett had recorded an entire album: Equal Strain on All Parts, his final LP, was released last week.
Numerous musicians paid tribute to Buffett following his death, including Chesney, a longtime fan of the singer. “Jimmy painted pictures and short stories in all the songs he wrote,” Chesney said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “He taught a lot of people about the poetry in just living, especially this kid from East Tennessee.”
Many country musicians, in fact, have been inspired by Buffett’s music. Chesney nodded to his work on 2002’s No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems and his success in introducing Buffett’s island attitude to country music helped spawn a crush of similarly sunny hits: Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach,” Toby Keith’s “Stays in Mexico,” Zac Brown Band’s “Toes,” Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy,” Sugarland’s “All I Wanna Do,” Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere on a Beach,” Little Big Town’s “Day Drinkin’,” Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita,” Old Dominion’s “I Was on a Boat That Day,” the entire catalog of Jake Owen, and on and on.
Buffett also appeared on Jackson’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” a monster Number One hit that earned Buffett his first CMA Award, for Vocal Event of the Year in 2003. The following year, Buffett released a proper country album on RCA Nashville, License to Chill. Chesney, Jackson, and Keith all guested, along with George Strait and Clint Black, and it topped the country charts.
In 2011, he teamed with Zac Brown Band for “Knee Deep” and, the year before, joined ZBB for an episode of CMT’s live-music series Crossroads. “Hope you’re knee deep in the water somewhere in paradise today,” Brown posted after Buffett’s death, and paid further tribute to him with a cover of “Margaritaville” at a concert in New Hampshire.
The 2023 CMA Awards also featured performances by Post Malone, Kelsea Ballerini, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay, Jordan Davis, Cody Johnson, Ashley McBryde, and the War and Treaty.