Joe Diffie, a consistent country-music hitmaker throughout the Nineties, died Sunday due to complications related to COVID-19. His publicist confirmed the death to Rolling Stone. Diffie was 61.
With a traditional-leaning voice that drew comparisons to George Jones, Diffie populated his records with honky-tonk ballads and lighthearted novelty tunes, earning the Oklahoma native five Number One singles in the first half of the Nineties. These began with his debut release, the deeply moving “Home,” followed by “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” “Third Rock From the Sun,” “Pickup Man,” and “Bigger Than the Beatles.” In all, Diffie charted 18 Top Ten singles, with the majority reaching the Top Five, including the 1993 radio staples “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)” and “John Deere Green.”
The singer was famously name-checked, as were a number of his best-known songs, in Jason Aldean’s 2013 single “1994.” “There are plenty of singers in this town, but not many with a range like his,” Diffie’s fellow Opry star Vince Gill told People magazine in 1993.
Joseph Logan Diffie was born in Tulsa and raised in the tiny community of Velma, Oklahoma. In the intervening years, the Diffie family lived in San Antonio, Washington state, and Wisconsin. His father, who held jobs as a teacher, rancher, truck driver, and welder, had musical tastes that ran more toward traditional country, but Diffie learned about harmony singing by working in gospel and bluegrass groups, including, respectively, Higher Purpose and Special Edition. Diffie also played bars, VFW halls, and honky-tonks as a solo act in Duncan, Oklahoma, where he lived with his wife and children while working in a local foundry. He also partnered with his father to run a small recording studio.
After the closing of the foundry and the dissolution of his first marriage, Diffie relocated to Nashville in 1986, implementing a five-year plan to make it in the music business. There, he took a job with the Gibson guitar company and also began singing on countless demos and writing songs. In 1988, country legend Hank Thompson cut the Diffie composition “Love on the Rocks.” In 1989, Diffie co-wrote and sang backing vocals on Holly Dunn’s Top Five single “There Goes My Heart Again.”
Signed to Epic Records, Diffie released his debut LP, A Thousand Winding Roads, in 1990. The album produced his inaugural hit, “Home,” which set a record by becoming the first debut single to reach the top of the country charts on all three trade publications at the time: Billboard, Gavin, and Radio & Records. Opening for acts including George Strait and Steve Wariner, Diffie continued his hit streak with six Top Five singles in a row, one of which, 1992’s somber “Ships That Don’t Come In,” would likely have gone to Number One but for its use of the word “bitch” in the lyrics.
In 1993, the year he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, Diffie released the platinum-selling LP Honky-Tonk Attitude, followed by 1994’s Third Rock From the Sun, which was also certified platinum. Following moves to Monument and Broken Bow Records, Diffie signed with the Rounder label, returning to his bluegrass roots with Homecoming. In 1998, he won a Grammy award for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for the all-star recording “Same Old Train” with Merle Haggard, Clint Black, Emmylou Harris, and more.
In 2013, Diffie and two of his country contemporaries, Aaron Tippin and Sammy Kershaw, teamed for the collaborative album All in the Same Boat. In July 2019, he released the honky-tonk tune “As Long as There’s a Bar,” and in November issued his first-ever vinyl LP, Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie, featuring updated versions of 11 of his hits and a cover of the Stevie Ray Vaughan tune “Pride and Joy.”
Representative of his workingman persona, Diffie took a no-nonsense approach to his craft. “I just like the songs themselves,” he told Rolling Stone in 2019. “Finding songs I really liked and that I related to. Really, it’s not any more complicated than that.”