Just a Regular Joe

Joe Diffie’s death becomes  another loss for the country community 

Joe Diffie (Art: Ron Hart)

Joe Diffie was country before country was cool…or at least before the format became fractured whilst integrating frat pop and hip hop. 

Diffie, who died Sunday, March 29 from complications related to coronavirus COVID-19, was a dedicated to the genre from early on; having been raised in a family of professional musicians, he made his first public appearance at age 14 while performing with his aunt’s country music band. As a young man, he worked in a variety of blue collar occupations, from driving trucks to working in the old fields and wrote songs on the side. The experiences helped shape his musical vocabulary, affirming his image as an Everyman and allowing honesty, integrity and everyday observation to inform his songs.

It was little wonder then that once he was signed, success would come quickly. Over the course of his career, he was a frequent presence on the country music charts, scoring number one hits with the songs “Pickup Man,” “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” “Third Rock from the Sun,” and “Bigger Than the Beatles.” Between 1990 and 2004, he also contributed a dozen more songs to the top ten.

 

VIDEO: Joe Diffie “Pickup Man”

Diffie’s string of successes were spurred by some decidedly humble early initiatives. He kicked off his performing career with gospel group called Higher Purpose, followed by sideman gig with a bluegrass band known as Special Edition. During that time, he began writing songs which he’d demo and send to publishers. Hank Thompson and Randy Travis were early takers, although in the case of the latter, Diffie’s song was never recorded.

Diffie went through a rough patch in the mid ‘80s. Forced to declare bankruptcy and immersed in depression, he nevertheless moved to Nashville where he took a job at the Gibson Guitar Corporation. However he continued to make demos and soon quit the company to write full time. Ricky Van Shelton, Alabama, Billy Dean, Holly Dunn and other country hitmakers would eventually record his songs, placing him in great demand for his ability to provide quality material to other artists.

Diffie probably could have continued to have a profitable career strictly as a songwriter, but when he caught the attention of Bob Montgomery, known for his work with Buddy Holly as a producer and co-writer, his progress took another turn when he was signed him to Epic Records. The string of albums he recorded for the label throughout the early to mid ‘90s — A Thousand Winding Roads, Regular Joe, Honky Tonk Attitude and Third Rock From the Sun — were destined to rank among his biggest successes. During the same period, Diffie was inducted in the Grand Ole Opry and received recognition from the County Music Association for his vocal contribution to the George Jones’ song ”I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” He’d later work with Jones again on a track called “What Would Waylon Do” from Diffie’s 2004 release, Tougher Than Nails.

 

AUDIO: Joe Diffie “What Would Waylon Do?”

Nevertheless, by the mid-2000s, Diffie’s grasp on the charts became increasingly infrequent. After a stint on Monument, he signed with Rounder Records and changed his tack, releasing 10th album to date, Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album, featuring cameos from Rhonda Vincent, Bryan Sutton, Rob Ickes, Carl, Jackson, and the Grascals. The album gave him an inroad into the now-burgeoning bluegrass scene. His final album, released last year, was titled — appropriately enough Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie.

Ultimately, his hit singles title aside, Diffie never did become bigger than the Beatles, but regardless, his ability to mix down home humor with country credence gave him a singular presence all his own. He was also an altruistic individual who raised funds for First Steps, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating physically and mentally impaired children. 

RIP Joe Diffie (Art: Ron Hart)

Diffie’s death, two days after he revealed he had contracted COVID-19, was mourned by a veritable who’s who of the country music community. “I was saddened to hear that my friend and fellow Grand Ole Opry member Joe Diffie passed away today,” Ricky Skaggs wrote. “Joe was a great singer, songwriter, and entertainer that left his mark in Country Music. His clear voice and unique singing style made him immediately recognizable. We will all certainly miss him.”

Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers called him, “a great friend. A great man. A great singer. A GREAT loss.” Pam Tillis described Diffie as “One of the best artists ’90s Country ever served up. It’s sort of like losing a classmate…He never hit a bad note and was just a regular guy. We all loved him.”

Others offering their condolences included Charlie Daniels, T.G. Sheppard, Collin Raye, Aaron Tippin, Sammy Kershaw, Darryl Worley, members of Shenandoah, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws, the Kentucky Headhunters, and Restless Heart. “He was a singer’s singer,” Marty Raybon of Shenandoah said. “Joe was a simple man with a very kind heart,” Henry Paul of the Outlaws echoed those sentiments, saying. “His aptitude and soulful command of a Country song was unparalleled.”

Sadly, good old Joes of his sort don’t come around often enough.

 

VIDEO: Waylon Jennings, Travis Tritt, Joe Diffie and Steve Wariner perform at the Grand Ole Opry, 1997

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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