“Grammy-winning country music legend Joe Diffie passed away today, Sunday, March 29, from complications of coronavirus (COVID-19),” the statement read simply. “His family respects their privacy at this time.”
On Friday, Diffie become the first country star to go public with a coronavirus diagnosis. “I am under the care of medical professionals and currently receiving treatment,” a statement attributed to him read. “My family and I are asking for privacy at this time. We want to remind the public and all my fans to be vigilant, cautious and careful during this pandemic.”
Diffie, a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 25 years, is a household name to any country fan who came of age listening to the format in the 1990s. Part of a neotraditionalist wave that thrived during that decade, he had more than 20 top 10 country hits, five of which went to No. 1 (“Home,” “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets,” “Third Rock from the Sun,” “Pickup Man” and “Bigger Than the Beatles”). Two of his 13 albums went platinum and another two were certified gold.
Upon learning about his death, fans inevitably began posting a song that only went to No. 3 in 1993, but was destined to be his most revived song upon his passing: “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die).”
Among those quickly paying respect to Diffie upon hearing the news was another country hitmaker of the era, Chely Wright, who tweeted, “My heart is absolutely breaking over the loss of life we are witnessing. @ was so nice and so great to tour with and one of the best country music singers of all time. 61 years old. God damn it.”
Although Diffie has not had a top 10 hit since 2001, it’s a measure of the affection country fans have for him from the ’90s that country superstar Jason Aldean recorded what basically amounts to a tribute song to Diffie, “1994,” which he released in 2012. Aldean’s song calls out the names of a half-dozen Diffie hits, includes lines like “1994, Joe Diffie comin’ out my radio” and “Hey Joe, come on and teach us how to Diffie,” and has features a chant as its chorus: “Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie.”
The Aldean tribute was co-written by a writer who went on to be a superstar in his own right, Thomas Rhett, who has also performed “1994” in his concerts. More recently, Chris Young also gave him a shout-out in the song “Raised On Country,” singing the line, “Got my honky tonk attitude from Joe Diffie.”
Asked in an interview last April about how he felt about becoming a lyrical reference in younger singers’ songs, Diffie told AllAccess, “It’s super flattering. It really is, but it’s taken me a little while to kind of get used to being in that role. I admit, I always heard songs about people [like] George Jones or Merle Haggard, and I just didn’t ever feel like I was at that level. But it’s a really big honor, and I’m just kind of happy to roll with it now.”
Diffie had reportedly been planning to release his first official studio album in seven years, “I Got This.” A special vinyl release, titled “Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie” after the Aldean song, came out last year.
A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma (and member of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame), Diffie, who was born Dec. 28, 1958, lived in Texas and Washington before moving to Nashville in the 1980s and found work as a demo singer before signing with Epic Nashville in 1990. His first album, “A Thousand Winding Roads,” came out that year and generated his first No. 1 song, “Home.” His second album, “Regular Joe,” was his first to go gold. Around that time, he recorded a duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Not Too Much to Ask,” that became a minor hit and was nominated for a Grammy for best country collaboration.
He began to crest in 1993, when his third album, “Honky Tonk Attitude,” went platinum. The song “John Deere Green” did not go No 1, only reaching the top 5, but it became one of his signature songs nonetheless, and marked his first appearance on the pop chart. It was in 1993 when he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry — his quick designation for that honor being an indication of how far he’d ascended in just three years. He won an ACM Award for vocal event of the year for appearing on George Jones’ single “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” along with several other guest performers. He quickly followed that album with 1994’s “Third Rock from the Sun,” his other platinum-certified effort.
He scored a Grammy for best country collaboration when he and others joined Marty Stuart for the song “Same Old Train.” Diffie’s final release with Sony Nashville, “A Night to Remember,” was in 2001. He recorded a subsequent album for Broken Bow (2004’s “Tough as Nails”) and another for the roots label Rounder (2010’s “Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album”) as his recording pace slowed.
Other chart hits Diffie scored included “Ships That Don’t Come In,” “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die),” “Honky Tonk Attitude” and “Pickup Man.”
He was the second Grand Ole Opry member whose death was announced over the weekend, following news Saturday that Jan Howard, 91, had passed.
Diffie was married four times. He is survived by five children and his wife, Tara.
For an appreciation and overview of Diffie’s career and what it meant to country music, click here.
In November, Diffie released a duet with Marc Broussard of the Stevie Ray Vaughan song “Pride and Joy.” Listen below: