NASHVILLE — Joe Diffie earned accolades as a writer, musician and harmony singer before breaking into the big time as a country music hitmaker, due to such #1 singles as “If the Devil Danced In Empty Pockets,” “Third Rock From the Sun” and “Pickup Man.”
Sad to say Joe is the first country star to suffer from the corona-virus that claimed his life on March 29, 2020, at age 61. The Tulsa, Okla. native born Dec. 28, 1958, grew up to labor in the oil fields, before turning full-time to working the music scene.
Actually, Diffie insisted he learned to sing harmony shortly after learning to talk, and given his first guitar at age 8, explaining dad was an educator, who encouraged L’il Joe to read 200 books in the fourth grade.
“My dad was always one of those off-the-wall teachers. He would do strange things, and he had his own little system of rewards. He would buy candy bars and if you got first place (reading books and turning in book reports), you got to pick out five candy bars. The next kid who had second place, picked four and so on down the line. I always won . . . those candy bars were a great motivation for me!”
Teacher-father also played guitar: “My family has always been real musical. My mother sang. I can remember being a child riding in the family pick-up and we’d sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ ‘Peace In the Valley’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ together.”
Diffie said he was just 16 when he began playing club dates: “Then the church that I was going to had a group of guys, so we had a gospel quartet that we put together (Higher Purpose).” Then he spent four years pickin’ in a bluegrass band, Special Edition.
“I think that some of the very best singers have that bluegrass background,” mused Diffie, citing such as Vince Gill, Kenny Chesney, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Roe of Diamond Rio fame.
“I worked in the oil field for awhile, on a pulling unit, they call it. That involves setting up a portable rig over a well that’s already been drilled and pulling the rods and tubing out of the well that has a leak, or the rod had broken or something. That was nasty work. You had oil all over you all the time.”
Some in the music business nicknamed him “Regular Joe,” as he seemed to have a knack of getting inside the listener and pushing all the right emotional buttons with his vocals, due in no small part to this fact: “I’ve been a regular guy myself, bustin’ my butt 40 hours a week in a foundry . . . and I think if I sing about the things I feel (to the people), they’ve felt all those things, too.”
Following a job loss, bankruptcy and a divorce from his wife of nine years, Joe had little left to lose, so he bummed gas money to move to Nashville. “It was the dead of winter. Real cold and ugly looking, no leaves on the trees. I didn’t know if I wanted to stay or not.”
If nothing else, he was truly a survivor. Landing a day job at Gibson Guitar’s factory, he started to demo the songs he had written, nights and weekends. He also made friends with next-door neighbor Johnny Neale, himself a musician and successful songwriter. “I kept after him to write with me, just begging him to, and he finally did.”
Soon Neale got him signed as staff writer with Music Row publisher Forest Hills Music. That proved beneficial, and before long he landed cuts with popular acts the Forester Sisters and Doug Stone. Upon hearing the strength, range and expression in his demo vocals, producers increased demand for him on actual recording sessions.
Among future hits he demoed were Ricky Van Shelton’s “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You,” Billy Dean’s “You Don’t Count the Cost,” George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart” and Alabama’s “Born Country.” By 1989, Diffie abandoned his Gibson job, and concentrated on recording sessions and songwriting; one of his first co-writes (with Lonnie Wilson and Wayne Perry) being Holly Dunn’s Top Five single “There Goes My Heart Again.”
Producer Bob Montgomery liked Diffie’s demos and signed him to a major label pact with Epic Records, with his debut single “Home,” hitting #1 on Nov. 10, 1990, marking the first to go #1 on all three major music charts: Billboard, Radio & Records and Gavin, without benefit of a music video.
He co-authored his second hit “If You Want Me To” (with Wilson), which did get a video, and peaked at #2 in 1991. Later that year he chalked up another #1, “If the Devil Danced In Empty Pockets,” which many regard as his signature song. Hot on the heels of that hit, thanks again to his own creativity, came “New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame),” peaking at #2.
Coincidentally, with the exception of one single, 15 of his first 16 releases all charted at 20 weeks each. (That one was his 13th release “Startin’ Over Blues,”a Top 40 tune that charted only 13 weeks.) Three further chart-toppers were “Third Rock From The Sun,” “Pickup Man” and “Bigger Than The Beatles.”
He smiled recalling that “Pickup Man” garnered him a lucrative Ford Motors TV jingle contract, though his take on “John Deere Green” failed to elicit the same response from the farm equipment firm: “I never even got a tractor from John Deere, I had to go out and buy one.”
A song that Diffie’s proud of is “I’m the Only Thing (I’ll Hold Against You),” his hero Conway Twitty’s final chart single (which Joe co-wrote with Wilson and Kim Williams) in 1993. That was the same year, he was invited to become a member of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, the radio program that helped inspire him as a youngster.
All totaled, the star notched 17 Top 10 tunes during his run as an artist, his last being “In Another World,” 2001, and two Diffie albums – “Honky Tonk Attitude” and “Third Rock From The Sun” – are certified Platinum sellers. One of his final chart songs was “Tougher Than Nails,” #19 in 2004, and certainly an interesting topic for this honky-tonk favorite, as it dealt with a father consoling his son upon receiving a bloody nose from a school bully.
Discouraging a desire for revenge, Dad tells the boy about the toughest man he knows: “You hit him, and he just turns the other cheek/Don’t think for a minute he was weak/’Cause in the end, he showed ’em/ He was anything but frail/They hammered him to a cross/But he was tougher than nails . . .”
It was one of Diffie’s finest performances, and no doubt he “nailed” it indeed.
As a father, one of Diffie’s tougher tasks was coping with Down’s syndrome son Tyler’s birth, having that congenital disorder: “It was pretty earth-shattering when the doctor said my child’s going to be mentally retarded. But since then, Tyler has brought me more happiness and joy than my other children, not to slight them. But he is so special. Everything he does is such a huge deal.”
Through the ensuing years, Diffie devoted himself to providing special care for the youngster, as well as conducting concerts and golf tournaments to benefit First Steps, a United Way program to aid disabled children, and also the Duncanwood School specializing in child care.
Married four times, Diffie married fellow college student Janise Parker, mother to his children Parker and Kara, but were divorced in 1986. In ’88, he wed nurse Debbie Jones, with whom he had two boys Drew and Tyler. Next Joe and Theresa Crump were married at the Opryland Hotel in 2000, producing daughter Kylie in 2004; however, he and Theresa divorced in 2017. The following year, Tara Terpening became the brand new Mrs. Diffie.
Just days before his passing, Joe posted the following on FaceBook March 27: “I am under the care of medical professionals and currently receiving treatment after testing positive for coronavirus (COVID-19). 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.” – Walt Trott
Joe, Theresa, their baby Kylie, and Kris Kristofferson. (Patricia Presley photo.)