A Tribute to Joe Diffie
The 1990's Country Generation
I will argue down anyone why tries to tell me I am a North Carolina girl rather than a New Orleans native all because of how long I have lived here in NC (they tend to ignore my Louisiana-driven upbringing, the fact that I never fully associated with the NC culture, plus the fact that all my roots are down in New Orleans). There is one notable deviation, however, that may lead one to want to pin the North Carolina label on me -- and only one. That is that I came of age listening only to 1990's country. In fact, until I started my dance training at 14, that was all I listened to.
It all started from the backseat of our white 1988 Plymouth Voyager minivan when I would beg my mother to play the local country station for no reason other than that it was the very first station I ever knew by name (and jingle). I didn't even know what type of music it was. But because of that music, I am one of the few of my generation who is not embarrassed by the first CD's they ever bought; they remain heavy favorites to this day. I was also huge a Garth Brooks fan before it was cool!
That whole class of country artists, in my view, are the last to even be worthy of recognition. There was Hal Ketchum, Aaron Tippin, of course Garth, Mr. "Achy Breaky Heart" Billy Ray Cyrus, Travis Tritt, Lee Roy Parnell, Mark Chesnutt, John Michael Montgomery, Clay Walker. And I don't forget the great female artists like Lorrie Morgan, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna, Suzy Bogguss, and Pam Tillis. These names only scratch the surface of the talent of this era. Also, unlike a lot of the pop divas my peers were into, these performers seemed down to earth and genuine -- no attempts to be hip or flashy. It was all about the music and the deep roots, with God and country being common themes. Also unlike the pop scene, they all seemed like a close-knit community. I loved all that.
One of the greatest just passed away at the end of last month, and I don't think I have ever been this stunned by a celebrity death since Sally Ride (I am also a space nut) back in 2012. His name was Joe Diffie, and he was a favorite of mine growing up.
In the wake of his passing, his widow, Tara, issued a request for her husband's fans: "Please keep playing his music," she said, "Please keep his legacy alive forever."
Your wish is my command, Tara. This is my tribute.
Joe Logan Diffie was born December 28, 1958 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to Flora and Joe Riley Diffie. He came from a musical family. His grandparents played a variety of instruments (piano, guitar, mandolin and banjo), as did his father, and the whole family sang. Both claimed their son could sing harmony when he was three years old.
The young Joe Diffie grew up listening to albums in his father's record collection, and began performing himself at the age of 14 in his aunt Dawn Anita's country music band.
After moving between Washington (state), San Antonio, and Wisconsin as a youth, his family finally settled in the small town of Velma, Oklahoma. There, he completed high school where he was a five-sport athlete (football, baseball, basketball, golf, and track) and performed with friends in a rock band.
Diffie attended college at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. He initially began earning credits toward a degree pre-med, but decided against a career in medicine after marrying for the first time in 1977, and dropped out just shy of graduation. He began to work in oil fields and later in a foundry in Duncan while pursuing music on the side, first in a gospel group called Higher Purpose, followed by a bluegrass band called Special Edition. As he began to take his music endeavors more seriously, Diffie built a recording studio and started touring with his Special Edition band in adjacent states while sending demo recordings to publishers in Nashville.
1983: A very young Joe Diffie sings lead in Special Edition bluegrass band's rendition of "My Last Prayer."
Diffie caught a slight break when one of his demos, "Love on the Rocks," was recorded by Hank Thompson. Established country music star Randy Travis also expressed interest in one of Diffie's songs, and put it on hold, although he never recorded it. Though it appeared for a moment that his time had come, it ended up being the beginning of a personal depression (both financially and emotionally) that would last several months. The foundry closed, forcing Diffie to declare bankurptcy and sell his studio. He and his wife also divorced.
Diffie relocated to Nashville several months later and took a job at the Gibson Guitar plant and continued to write songs and record demos. Several of these demos were performed by the likes of Ricky Van Shelton and Alabama. His demos became so in demand that by mid 1989, he was able to quit his job at Gibson to record songs full time.
Diffie's big break came that year when he was contacted by songwriter and producer Bob Montgomery, who was known for his work with Buddy Holly. At the time, Montgomery was vice president of the artist and repertoire (A&R) division of Epic Records. Montgomery wanted to sign Diffie to a contract but informed Diffie that he would have to put him on hold for a year. Meanwhile, Diffie's songwriting talents put him on the map when he co-authored the song, "There Goes My Heart Again," which was released by Holly Dunn, with Diffie on background vocals.
Joe Diffie's first record deal with Epic was signed in early 1990.
Below is a chronology of his three-decade career since signing with Epic.
1990: "A Thousand Winding Roads"
Joe Diffie signed with Epic Records in 1990, which released his first album, A Thousand Winding Roads. The first single off of the album, "Home," reached #1 on Billboard Hot Country Songs, in addition to the country music rankings published by Radio & Records and the Gavin Report. Diffie became the first artist to have a #1 debut single on all three major country music charts. Though Diffie did not write the song, he said it always reminded him of his own home back in Oklahoma, and acknowledged that it stirs listeners' emotions regardless of where they consider home. "I think everybody related to it, regardless of whether they were raised in the country or city, because everybody has a home in their memory," he said.
Three other singles from the album also became hits. "If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)" repeated the #1 status of the title track, while "If You Want Me To," and "A New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)" both peaked at #2.
It was a promising start to what would become one of country music's most impressive catalogs by any artist.
1992: "Regular Joe"
Joe Diffie's second studio album, Regular Joe, was certified Gold. Two of its singles, "Is It Cold In Here" and "Ships That Don't Come In" both reached #1 on Radio & Records' rankings while breaking #5 on the Billboard.
Diffie later recalled that "Ships That Don't Come In" was his favorite of all the songs he'd ever recorded. During the last few years of his life, he said he'd been performing it in honor of the US military -- even though it did not have a patriotic theme -- because of the "great stories" he'd received from those serving in the military.
Fellow country music star John Berry has stated that the song, along with Joe Diffie's delivery, was what inspired him to move to Nashville to further his music career.
1993: "Honky Tonk Attitude"
Honky Tonk Attitude was Joe Diffie's third studio album. It sold over a million copies in the US and was certified platinum. Diffie described the album as being, "a little rowdier than the first two."
Indeed, two of its top singles, the title track and "Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)," were somewhat rock-tinged in sound with lyrics that were a tad humorous and novelty-oriented.
The third single, "John Deere Green," did not have the instant appeal for Diffie himself that it did for fans. Diffie claims that when his producer first brought him the demo of "John Deere Green," he hated it, citing the eclectic instrumentation and quality of the recording. Diffie's producer, he says, was able to change his mind by encouraging him to listen to the words. Diffie became a great admirer of Dennis Linde, the writer and creator of the nearly-discarded demo, and covered a number of his songs throughout his career.
Despite never reaching #1 on any of the major charts and never having an accompanying music video, "John Deere Green" went onto become Diffie's most requested -- and arguably most iconic -- song. It also accounted for Diffie's first appearance on Billboard's Hot 100, where it peaked at #69.
1994: "Third Rock From the Sun"
"Third Rock From the Sun" is Joe Diffie's highest charting album, with its title track being one of his best-known singles (in addition to "Pickup Man" which also appears on this album). Diffie has said he always liked the song "Third Rock." "It seemed like a mini movie in my head, that's what I kind of envisioned it as," he said.
There is no connection between the twisted plot depicted in the lyrics (listen below) and the hit TV show of the same name (it is also worth noting that the show debuted two years after the song was released). Its contents did, however, lend itself to comparisons to such films as Smokey and the Bandit and Back to the Future by Billboard writer Deborah Evans Price, who was not impressed with the song's composition or lyrics, calling it a rip-off of Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun."
Fans and listeners, by and large, gave a very different reception, as "Third Rock" rose to #1 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles rankings, only to be outdone by the popularity of "Pickup Man," which also rose to #1 and held the position for four weeks.
Third Rock From the Sun, the album, was Diffie's second to receive a platinum sales status, and for the remainder of his life, Diffie would use the title track as a show opener.
1995-2000: "Life's So Funny," "Twice Upon A Time," & "A Night To Remember"
Life's So Funny was Joe Diffie's fifth studio album, released in 1995. It was led off by the single, "Bigger than the Beatles," which became the last #1 hit of his career. The album boasted two more singles, "C-O-U-N-T-R-Y," and "Whole Lotta Gone," which both peaked at #23 on the country music charts.
His sixth album, Twice Upon A Time, was released in 1996. It was probably his least successful in terms of rankings, having not achieved a gold sales status or having any singles break the top 10 on any of the country charts, as had become the norm for his previous releases. This is not to say it fails to measure up to Diffie's previous work in terms of quality, however. One single in particular, "The Promised Land," showcased his vocal range beautifully.
Diffie's seventh studio release in 1999 -- and his final for Epic -- saw a bit of a revival in terms of commercial success. It was called A Night To Remember, and its title track spent 29 weeks on the country music charts, peaking at #6, and reached #38 on Billboard's Hot 100. Two more singles were cut from this album: "The Quittin' Kind," and "It's Always Somethin'," which spent 37 weeks on the country music charts -- the longest run by any of his singles. It peaked at #5.
Though "Promised Land" was the lowest peaking single of Joe Diffie's career, it is probably my favorite from the "Twice Upon A Time" album, both for its life's journey theme and the showcasing of Diffie's impressive vocal range. In my view, it is definitely one of his most underappreciated songs.
2001-2010: "In Another Word," "Tougher Than Nails," and a Return to Bluegrass
Joe Diffie released his eighth studio album, entitled In Another World (after the title track), in 2001. By the time of this album, Diffie had been transferred from Epic to Sony Nashville's Monument Records label due to a corporate judgment that Epic carried too many artists while Monument had too few.
For In Another World, Diffie had mentioned wanting to create a "more contemporary sound through the production."
The title track peaked at #10 on the country music charts and #66 overall.
In Another World was Diffie's only album for Monument Records. (Author's note: My favorite from the album is "Like A River Dreams of Rain.")
In 2003, Diffie signed with the independent label, Broken Bow Records. His only release on this label was his ninth album, Tougher Than Nails, which he co-produced. The title track reached the top 20. The album also contained the last charting single of Diffie's illustrious career, "If I Could Bring You Back," as well as a duet with the legendary George Jones.
In 2008, after continuing to tour, mainly around smaller venues and county fairs, Joe Diffie signed with Rounder Records, another independent label. While at Rounder, he released a live album, as well as an "Ultimate" Hits compilation before returning to his bluegrass roots.
The album, Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album, was recorded at the Ocean Way studio in Nashville, which is a converted church building. In addition to finding the ambiance of surrounding stained glass images relaxing, Diffie was also impressed with the acoustics of the studio. He even revived one track from his days with Special Edition, "Tennessee Tea."
It would be the final solo album of his career.
2011-2020: "All In The Same Boat," Vinyl Debut, New Singles
The final stretch of Joe Diffie's career consisted mainly of collaborations.
In 2013, he teamed up with fellow 1990's country icons Aaron Tippin and Sammy Kershaw to create an album, All In The Same Boat. A music video was made for its title track. Three three of them had performed and toured together for years, and even developed their own show called the "Roots & Boots Tour" where they exchanged jokes and stories and (in Diffie's words) "sang some good ole country music." Kershaw would later recount the experience on his Facebook page. "We became friends and then we became brothers," he said.
Diffie also collaborated with D Thrash of the country rap band, Jawga Boyz on a single, "Girl Riding Shotgun." It all came about when his manager called him about the opportunity, asking if he wanted to write a song with the Jawga Boyz' lead singer. Diffie's answer was an enthusiastic, "Heck yeah!"
During his final years preceding his death, Diffie released several singles, "Quit You," "I Got This," and "As Long As There's A Bar." The first two were released in 2018, with the latter in the summer of 2019. They were to be a part of an upcoming solo album for which "I Got This" would be its title track. Each of these songs hearkened back to the poignant ballads and rock-shaded honky tonk novelties, the very sound that made him one of country music's biggest stars back in the 90's. (Author's note: I have seen word that there are plans to release the album posthumously, but no official confirmation).
Also in 2019, Diffie released his first vinyl album, Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie, which was a compilation of his biggest hits.
Joe Diffie passed away March 29, 2020 from complications from COVID-19 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He was 61 years old. According to family, he had began experiencing symptoms in the weeks before his diagnosis just two days before his death, but thought they were "just allergies." Though his condition got progressively worse, he never believed it would ultimately take his life. Indeed, he had been making regular posts all over social media throughout the month of March, always coming off as his normal fun-loving self and leading fans to believe nothing was amiss.
Diffie's wife, Tara, almost immediately stated on her Instagram how overwhelmed she and the family were with the endless plethora of tributes, and says they have loved every one. She also claims that Joe Diffie died a happy man. “He loved his fans, his friends, his family and he was truly happy," she said.
The outpouring from the country music community in general has also been enormous. The general consensus among his peers was that he had "the greatest voice in all of country music."
Since Diffie's family could not provide a normal memorial service for him at this time due to COVID-19 restrictions, his neighborhood outside of Nashville, Tennessee got creative as residents drove a parade of John Deere tractors and pick-up trucks down the streets, a nod to two of his biggest hits. Friends and neighbors gathered to give the country music legend a send-off while being mindful of social distancing and stay at home orders.
Last but not least, in the week following his death, Joe Diffie's music has reached new highs on country music charts, as he posthumously achieved his first top 10 rankings in digital sales, as well as his highest rank on Top Country Albums.
According to Billboard, "John Deere Greene" led the way at No. 2 with 7,000 sold in the week ending April 2, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. "Pick-Up Man" has reached No. 5 (6,000), while "Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die)" has debuted at #7.
On Top Country Albums, the Joe Diffie compilation album, 16 Biggest Hits, which was first released in 2002, has attained a rank of #4, with 16,000 equivalent album units (up from 1,000) with 4,000 in sales. This is his highest album sales rank since Third Rock From The Sun (6th) back in 1994.
Joe Diffie Links
- Joe Diffie Official Website
Keeping his legacy alive.
- Joe Diffie (@officialjoediffie) • Instagram photos and videos