Joe Diffie: In a post-modern world, he was the perfect old-school hillbilly singer. Like George Jones, there was no interest in going uptown, no need for turbo-sophistication. Give him a Manuel cowboy shirt, some clever wordplay, a hot band… and Joe, with that craggy, bluegrass-honed voice and the ability to twist notes like balloons at a kiddie party, was good to go.
Born in Oklahoma to working class people, Diffie made his way to Nashville and found a place among Music Row’s old guard who’d penned hits for Charley Pride, Tanya Tucker, Mel Tillis, Razzy Bailey and Kenny Rogers. Managed by Danny Morrison and Johnny Slate, who also produced his records, Diffie was a product of a world where writers hung out all night, and creative types were as much about high jinks as they were stitching together icehouse anthems that moved from the gut-wrenching pathos (“If I Had Any Pride Left At All”) to romping swing (“If The Devil Danced in Empty Pockets”), jacked-up honky-tonk (“Third Rock from the Sun”) and clever, morning-drive, laugh-out-loud novelty (“Pick Up Man,” “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox”).
It wasn’t just the music, though the music was straight-cut George Jones or Gary Stewart tavern-tested. It was the culture. Working-class proud, he leaned into the Merle Haggard notion of making music for the people who populate the country bars, drive the 12-year-old trucks and think Wal-Mart is Saks Fifth Avenue. For all the novelty attention multi-week No. 1s like “Bigger Than The Beatles” attracted, it was the pastoral truth of the lower middle class that defined the nuance.
“Home,” his first single and his first No. 1, painted a simple but satisfying picture:
…Home was a back porch swing where I would sit
And mom would sing ‘Amazing Grace’
While she hung out the clothes
Home was an easy chair with my daddy there
And the smell of Sunday supper on the stove
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind I’m always going home…
In most people’s hands, that would be bad Norman Rockwell or saccharine Hallmark. With a warmth that tempered the wistfulness, the mullet-sporting singer made even the most cynical listener pine for a place where hope wasn’t a fool’s game, and kindness was the measure of what a honest day’s work yielded.
That same notion of hope stained “Ships That Don’t Come In,” an ACM Awards song of the year nominee. Barstool commiseration, it reality-checked anyone thinking their life was too hard to shoulder. As strings simmered just below the middle of the arrangement, the 1992 CMA male vocalist of the year nominee unfurled a truth to temper life’s tough breaks:
He said it’s only life’s illusions that bring us to this bar
To pick up these old crutches and compare each other’s scars
‘Cause the things we’re calling heartache
Hell, they’re hardly worth our time
We bitch about a dollar
When there’s those without a dime…
…before collecting that muscular tenor to raise a glass to…
…to those who stand on empty shores
And spit against the wind
And those who wait forever
For ships that don’t come in…
Joe Diffie ended up a midlevel country star, because he arrived on the first crushing wave of young-stud country. Soundscan intersected with the suburbs’ exodus from pop radio, which was awash in rap at the same time grunge swallowed rock. It creating fertile soil for country music among housewives of a certain age, and even rock fans looking for something that felt a little less Nirvana, as well as the longstanding fans.
Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, John Michael Montgomery, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart and Ricky Van Shelton were all elbowing for nominations and space at the top of the charts. No matter how erotically charged his laments may’ve been, Joe Diffie was never going to light up that young hunk ethos.
If his debut album, “A Thousand Winding Roads,” flirted playing with the heartthrob template, the follow-up, “Regular Joe,” slammed that notion against the back wall. For the cover of his second album, Diffie was shot in a black tank top, gold chain, mullet pouring down his back, leaning over a cup of a coffee across Tootsies’ battle scarred front booth table and laughing. Back then, the crusty Lower Broadway bar was down-market, not today’s slick tourist trap; it was the perfect beachhead for the real Joe Diffie to stake his claim.
Like Jones, that was the deal. Don’t get above your raising. Rock those twin fiddles, spin your partner, celebrate small town romance — even if that meant climbing the water tower to paint the heart that said “Billy Bob loves Charlene” in “John Deere Green.” Break your own heart, listening to the songs made country the genre to drown your sorrows in. Then, when the final breath comes, take the whole mess of it to the house rollicking, as the gospel swagger of “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (When I Die)” mandated, suggesting “you can pay your last respects one quarter at a time.”
That kind of country doesn’t exist any more. Slightly coarse, back-40 funny, the clever was never machined, but just naughty old songwriters cutting up.
Given the era, Diffie may well be the last of a breed. He was 25 years a member of the Grand Ole Opry, with 20 Top 10s. But even after the hits faded, Diffie remained a citizen of music. He wrote hits for Jo Dee Messina (“My Give-A-Damn’s Busted”). He cut a much-passed-among-musicians bluegrass album, “Homecoming,” that dipped into the Appalachian tragedy of “Rainin’ On Her Rubber Dolly” as well as a supple, charged take on the Black Crowes’ version of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” Just this fall, he issued a 500-copy vinyl run of his greatest hits called “Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie” — that title riffing on Jason Aldean’s “1994” name-check. He also paired with Louisiana’s Marc Broussard for a tangy version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride & Joy.” That was Joe, who loved all music, who knew how to crawl inside a song, turn it inside out.
And like those old-school country singers who sang about “White Lightning” and “Working Man’s Blues,” he kept taking it on the road and making music. You could find him at the Opry many Saturday nights, or working old-guard bastions like Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth or great big festivals where Aldean and so many of today’s stars looked to him as the ultimate elder country voice for their generation.
It takes a certain kind of guy to “Walk The Line (If It Ain’t Too Straight).” Joe Diffie was that kind of guy. Fearless, he’d lean into a song. But he was just as likely to give you a wink and a smile walking off the stage, tilt his head and let you know he was glad you were there.
Somewhere in heaven, there’s a band that’s smoking — and Joe’s reaching for a cigarette, a cold beer and a burger. Somehow, I know he’s rocking.
Just let my headstone be a neon sign
Just let it burn in mem’ry of all of my good times
Fix me up with a mannequin — just remember I like blondes
I’ll be the life of the party even when I’m dead and gone
Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based writer and the editor of the book “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives.” Pictured above with Diffie, she was the head of publicity at Sony Nashville in the early 1990s when the singer had his platinum breakthroughs.