In an ironic twist, the parade of talented newcomers entering the country music genre in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s meant the older artists they idolized – like Johnny Cash, George Jones and Loretta Lynn – found themselves with decreased radio airplay; and yet through the neotraditional movement of that time, these newcomers found their own respective ways to honor their heroes.
The change, of course, came from a shift in business climate and was a mere sign of its time. Plus, both older and younger artists would prosper from the eventual change; older artists would gain the freedom to pursue music in a more creative fashion while younger artists ushered the genre forward to start and map their own legends. As such, a few of the names associated with that movement – Alan Jackson, Suzy Bogguss, Patty Loveless, Mark Chesnutt, Lee Ann Womack, Marty Stuart, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, for instance – merely scratches the surface of what was to come.
Joe Diffie is another name to add to that pile – a performer who made his mark by being an average guy. Now, that isn’t a slight; Diffie did lack the star-making image and appeal of, say, Garth Brooks and Clint Black, and he wasn’t known to get experimental with his material like Marty Stuart. But by being the friendly, good-natured, relatable performer he’d embody throughout his career, Diffie arguably struck closer to the real heartbeat of country music than many of his peers.
Plus, when he arrived, Diffie was heralded as an heir to performers like George Jones and Merle Haggard, with a voice perfectly suited for hard country ballads and upbeat affairs. His childhood was filled with memories of his father’s love for country music, which included plenty of the aforementioned Jones, Haggard, Cash and Lefty Frizzell being played around the house. Diffie, however, initially had other interests in the medical field and sports. He was a multi-letterman, playing football, baseball, golf and running track. From high school he went on to Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, intent on continuing his sports activities while earning credits toward medical school.
His sports dream ended when he saw his competition for the football team, and when he fell in love with the woman who’d become his first wife (in 1977), he also abandoned his medical aspirations to start earning a living for the two of them and, eventually, their first child. Thus spurred Diffie’s blue-collar credentials, working in a foundry and at other wage jobs while pursuing his other passion of music. He didn’t think music would make for a viable full-time avocation, mind you, but throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, he sang with gospel group Higher Purpose and, afterwards, worked with bluegrass group Special Edition. Diffie wrote some of the band’s material, as well as a few mainstream country-oriented songs. His songwriting interests inspired him to set up an eight-track studio in Duncan, Oklahoma to record demos for both him and other musicians.
Unfortunately, in 1986, Diffie’s foundry operation was shut down, leaving him without a job; then, due to financial difficulties, he lost his recording studio, following bankruptcy with divorce. An unfortunate story and time for Diffie, but also one that would inspire him to move to Nashville, Tennessee, taking a job with Gibson Guitar Corporation and working as a songwriter. Bob Montgomery, then-vice president of A&R at Epic Records, took interest in signing Diffie as an artist, which he did in 1990.
Diffie’s debut single, “Home,” topped multiple industry popularity charts, eliciting the aforementioned comparisons to heroes and legends. He’d master his knack for tender balladry with followup singles like “Is It Cold In Here” and “Ships That Don’t Come In.” Like his contemporary, Travis Tritt, Diffie also favored high-energy “turbo tonk,” evident in “New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame),” “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die),” “John Deere Green,” “Pickup Man” and “Third Rock From The Sun.” In a sense, Diffie’s versatility as a performer may be his defining element. His goofy material earned him the endearing nickname of “Joe Ditty” while his serious material showcased a commanding vocal presence; relatable and charming while adding a unique flair to his performances and material, in a nutshell.
And though his reign at country radio only lasted for one decade, he ended it with one of his finest cuts in “A Night To Remember.” In 2001, parent company Sony Music moved Diffie to Sony’s Monument imprint. The title track to his In Another World album became a No. 10 single, though it was his only album for the label. In a sense, Diffie’s real success throughout the 2000s was emblematic of his songwriter roots. Singer/songwriter Jo Dee Messina recorded his “My Give A Damn’s Busted” in 2005, becoming a smash hit for both her and him. He released early demo recordings through his website in 2008, and in 2010, released Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album through Rounder Records. Jason Aldean would find “a new way to light up an old flame” when he idolized Diffie in 2012’s “1994,” in which the sole focus is references made to Diffie’s aforementioned ‘90s hits.
It’s quickly becoming an understatement to say COVID-19 has paralyzed the world, and in the whirlwind of constant news we receive, reports of Diffie’s death from the disease just … aren’t what anyone expects at a given moment. Again, with how much Diffie represents the true “everyman” of country music, losing him feels like losing an old friend – a childhood icon by this point, really. I was fortunate to see Diffie in concert for the first time last summer. I remember how excited he was to perform those old hits; I remember how excited he was to share he’d been working on new music; and I remember how wild the crowd went for his performance, and this was at a show where Luke Combs was the headliner, mind you. His influence is noted, and his legacy is well-established.