Acceptance of a gift should not be difficult. However, when that gift is not perfect, acceptance is not easy—especially when that gift is a child. In 1989, Joe Diffie, who country legend Vern Gosdin, according to The News–Times called, “the man with the golden voice,” had to accept an imperfect gift when his son, Tyler was born with Down’s syndrome. “I was just devasted,” Diffie told People. “I remember thinking, ’How could I have something imperfect?’ I was just so hurt. I heard Down’s and thought the world had ended.” But the world had not ended—a new world had just begun. Fans of the “golden voice” began to bring their Down’s children to Diffie’s concerts. Diffie also told People, “I think parents think; Well if I take my kids to this guy’s show, it’s not going to be an embarrassment because he has a child like mine’.” Thus, while Diffie’s fans continued to sell out his concerts and push his albums to number one, Diffie accepted his imperfect gift, stating to People, “Tyler’s a beautiful child. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Joe Logan Diffie was born on December 29, 1958, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He grew up in a musical family with his two sisters, Meg and Monica. Diffie’s mother, Flora loved to sing, while his father, Joe Riley, played the guitar. In fact, according to his web site, Diffie first learned howto play guitar on his Dad’s F–hole Airlinefrom Sears & Roebuck. But, it was in a car where Diffie first begantosing. “lremembersingingataroundthreeorfour years old,” he recalled to imusic.com. “My mother and dad, me and my two sisters—we’d take trips and we’d all sing harmony while my dad was driving.” Diffie recollected listening to country legends Merle Haggard and George Jones. But, as Diffie told New Country reporter Brian Mansfield, it was another country legend that sang Diffie to sleep: “my mom and dad say; I wouldn’t go to sleep unless they put a Johnny Cash record on.”
Diffie’s first public performance came at the ripe old age of four when he sang, “You Are My Sunshine” with his aunt’s country band. By high school, Diffie had joined, as stated on countrystars.com, a “four–song … garage band” as well as a gospel ensemble. However, being a country music star wasn’t Diffie’s dream job; he wanted to become a doctor. He wanted to be a heart surgeon, but after a football injury, he decided to become a chiropractor. Yet, he kept part of his heart in music by playing with Higher Purpose, a gospel group, and Special Edition, a bluegrass band. After graduation, Diffie attended Cameron University and married Janise Parker. When the reality of having to make a living started to sink in, Diffie curtailed his plans to become a chiropractor as well as his musical gigs and found “real” jobs—first in a Texas oil field, then in an iron foundry. Diffie told Tennessean’s reporter Thomas Goldsmith that working in an oil field was, “nasty, nasty work; you had oil all over you all the
Born Joe Logan Diffie on December 29, 1958 in Tulsa, OK; son of Joe Riley (a teacher, rancher, and welder) and Flora Diffie; married Janise Parker (divorced in 1986); married Debbie Jones in 1988; children: Parker and Kara (from first marriage) and sons: Tyler and Drew (from second marriage). Education: Attended Cameron University.
Worked in Texas oil field as well as in a foundry throughout the late 1970s and mid–1980s; began rededicating himself to music by singing with bluegrass group, Special Edition; landed job at Gibson Guitar Company in Nashville, TN to pay the bills; contracted songwriter for Forest Hills Music publishers, 1987; became professional demo record singer; co–penned Holly Dunn’s hit “There Goes My Heart Again;” signed to record deal with Epic Records, 1990; released debut album, A Thousand Winding Roads, album yielded four number one singles: “Home,” “If You Want Me To,” “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets,” and “New Way to Light Up an Old Flame;” released second album, Regular Joe, 1992; album included the number one single, “Is It Cold in Here (Or Is It Just You)” as well as earned Diffie a Country Music Association nomination for Male Vocalist of the Year; recorded duet with Mary–Chapin Carpenter “Not to Much to Ask,” 1993; released Honky Tonky Attitude released Third Rock from the Sun, 1994; released Life’s So Funny and Mr. Christmas , both in 1995; released Twice Upon a Time, 1997; created Third–Rock a show business/entertainment company; released GreatestHits, 1998; released A Night To Remember, 1999.
Awards: CashBox magazine’s Male Vocalist of the Year and Billboard magazine’s Top Singles Artist of the Year, both 1990; Country Music Association Award for his vocal collaboration with George Jones on “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair,” 1992; Country Radio Broadcasters Humanitarian Award, 1997; Grammy for “Same Old Train,” 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave. 22nd FL, New York, NY 10022–3211, (212) 883–8000. fax (212) 883–4054. Publicist— Stephanie Kidd, Third Rock Entertainment, Nashville, TN; Website —www.joediffie.com.
time.” Working as a machinist in an iron foundry, he further told Goldsmith, was not much better. “I hated every second of that foundry job, just detested it.” Yet, he spent eight years at the foundry until finally, in 1986, he was laid off which according to imusic.com, “proved to be Diffie’s blessing in disguise.” He and Janise also divorced that same year.
Throughout the mid–1980s, Diffie not only played shows with his aunt and sister, he also concentrated on song–writing and ran an eight–track recording studio. “Of course, it didn’t do well financially; most small studios didn’t,” Diffie told imusic.com. “But I had to work on my guitar, and learn a bit of bass and drums to help out on sessions.” This practice created a successful Hank Thompson hit, “Love On the Rocks.” However, it wasn’t Diffie’s musicianship, but his songwriting that led him to Nashville. Diffie heard that country superstar Randy Travis may record one of his songs. Encouraged by this news and with money from his parents, Diffie, in December of 1986, packed up and headed to Music City. He explained to imusic.com “I was real naïve when I arrived. It was scary. But I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t try.”
In Nashville, Diffie quickly found work at the Gibson Guitar Company, not designing or playing guitars, but loading and unloading them. Yet, he remembered his Dad’s advice, “Do something every day to work toward your goal.” Diffie worked hard toward his goal of becoming a country singer, but he was also helped by a little luck. After rooming with a bluegrass musician, Diffie discovered their next–door neighbor was Johnny Neal, a popular songwriter. “I showed him some demos,” Diffie further commented to imusic.com, “and, by helping me get a publishing deal, he got me started.” Soon after, Diffie quit his job at the Gibson Guitar Company, and signed on as a songwriter at Forest Hills Music. Country superstars such as Charley Pride and Conway Twitty as well as up–and–comers Tracy Lawrence and Doug Stone began recording Diffie’s songs. In 1988, not only was Diffie’s professional career hot, but so was his personal life. He married Debbie Jones, a nurse technician. In 1989, “There Goes My Heart Again,” a tune co–written by Diffie, became a smash hit for Holly Dunn. At the same time, Diffie also sang on demo tapes including harmony for a then unknown Tim McGraw. His vocal contribution helped get McGraw signed to a recording contract, and, in return, McGraw recorded Diffie’s “Memory Lane,” his second single. Record labels soon began seeking out the popular songwriter and finally, in 1990, Epic Records signed Diffie.
In 1990, Diffie’s debut album, A Thousand Winding Roads, leapt onto country music charts and produced four smash number one singles: “Home,” “If You Want Me To,” “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets,” and “New Way to Light Up an Old Flame.” According to imusic.com Diffie was “the first country singer to be accorded a #1 hit his first time at bat” with “Home.” It was also the first single in country music history to top the charts of all major music–business magazines simultaneously. Yet, Diffie was not only gaining recognition for his booming tenor so evident on ballads like “Home,” but also for his, “once so clever, yet so down–home and so sincere [song writing],” Country Music stated. “[Song writing] that… could have come straight from the pens of honky–tonk poet laureates of yesteryear.”
In 1992, Diffie released his second album, Regular Joe, which produced four more smash hits including the jukebox favorite, “Is It Cold in Here (Or Is It Just You)” and, according to Diffie’s web site, one of his favorite songs to perform live, “Ships That Don’t Come In.” Regular Joe earned Diffie a Country Music Association (CMA) nomination for Male Vocalist of the Year. He was also nominated for his duet, “Not Too Much to Ask” with Mary–Chapin Carpenter, the CMAFemale Vocalist of the Year that same year. Carpenter had chosen Diffie for this duet, because she felt he combined an understanding of classic country singing with a uniquely modern interpretation. That same year, Diffie won a CMA award for “I Don’t Need No Rocking Chair,” his vocal collaboration with the legendary George Jones. Yet, smash hits were notthe only contribution he made in 1992. Inspired by his son Tyler, he also organized the First Steps concert and golf tournament—an annual event which raises money for disabled children.
In 1993, Diffie, with his third album, HonkyTonkAttitude, began to a blend a bit of humor into his ballads. Witty songs such as “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die),” showed fans Diffie’s funny bone. Also, critics such as Country Music’s Rich Kienzle felt the album as a whole pushed Diffie “further into that idiom where he shows the gutsiness that many younger singers never quite catch. It’s New Traditionalism without compromise, but music that fans of certain more modern–sounding singers can enjoy as well.” Such critical accolades would make any country singer happy. However, Diffie was offered the highest praise from his peers when he was asked to become a member of Nashville’s cherished Grand Ole Opry.
Diffie released his fourth album, Third Rock from the Sun, in 1994. This album once again showed Diffie’s two sides. The hard rocking title tune offered a humorous story about a meteor hitting the earth, while “So Help Me Girl,” another number one single, once again presented a tender love story. In 1995, Diffie continued his hot streak by releasing his fifth and sixth albums: Life’s So Funny and Mr. Christmas. With Life’s So Funny, Diffie, “turns a little more personal and emotional,” @Country asserted. Yet, Diffie maintained his cleverness with the single, “BiggerThan The Beatles.” This song, described by @ Country, “is a novelty pop–rocker with Fab Four–like “yeah, yeah, yeahs,” as Diffie sings about a lounge performer and a waitress who both dream of stardom from a Holiday Inn.” Diffie’s Christmas album, Mr. Christmas, was reviewed by @Country and, “offers a new take on some past and soon–to–be holiday favorites,” according to the website. Diffie’s “Leroy the Redneck Reindeer,” as the lyrics describe, is a “down–home party animal two–steppin’ across the sky” who is “delivering toys to all the good ol’ boys and girls along the way.” This funny twist on a classic has become a fan favorite, while the album “is warm and fuzzy,” @ Country stated, “and will be cherished just like that worn stocking hanging about the hearth.”
In 1996, after five years and six albums, Diffie became worn–out by the constant stress to produce hit singles. It did seem, however, that television and movies were just catching on to Diffie’s popularity. Ford Motor Company chose Diffie’s hit single, “Pickup Man,” as their national jingle, “She Ain’t Comin’ Back” provided atheme for the blockbuster movie Twister, and Diffie acted opposite one of his idols, Johnny Cash, in a television movie. Nevertheless, these pursuits didn’t quite revive Diffie’s creative spirit, so he created Third Rock Entertainment. “I was feeling a bit of staleness, both in my career and my everyday life,” explained Diffie on his web site. “I felt like it was time to make some kind of move.” Some people thought that he “wouldn’t stick with running his own show business company. “But it’s been so good for me; man, I enjoy it. I’m at the office everyday. It’s been so refreshing and has helped me in so manyways. I feel like I’ve got my finger on my own pulse,” he further explained. However, show business was not Diffie’s only work. He also continued organizing events and raising money for First Steps, and in 1997, Country Radio Broadcasters awarded Diffie its Humanitarian Award for his years of charitable work. “It is, he says, the highest honor he has ever received.”
After a year of rejuvenation, Diffie returned to hit making with the release of his seventh album, Twice Upon a Time. For this album, Diffie told imusic.com he “looked for songs that dealt with everything about being human.” In turn, imusic.com called this album, “a true aural page–turner, well–paced, and irresistible.” Once again, Diffie had successfully blended wit and heart. In “Houston We Have a Problem,” the song’s unlucky narrator finds himself, according to imusic.com, ’hoping for romantic assignation in the cheap seats at the end zone’ [only to find] himself ’sitting here crying in the parking lot of the Astrodome’.” Nevertheless, it is the album’s final song, “One More Breath” that is, as imusic.com further stated, “an affirmation of not only love, but of life itself.”
In 1998, Diffie released Greatest Hits, an album that collected 12 of his most popular songs, including “Home,” “John Deere Green,” and “Ships That Don’t Come In,” as well as previously unreleased songs such as “Texas Size Heartache,” “Poor Me,” and “Hurt Me All The Time.” The website countrystars.com hailed this album as “a 12 song testament—written in platinum and solid gold—to a man who has established his place as one of the definitive country artists of this decade.” In 1999, Diffie also became a two–time Grammy winner for his vocal performance on “Same Old Train.”
Diffie’s ninth album, A Night to Remember, released in 1999, offered something new not only to Diffie’s longtime fans, but also to country music. “I wanted to record an entire album of lyrics that had messages,” Diffie told countrystars.com. “Every song had to have something to say. I think for a while now Country music has been afraid to play a song with any substance to it. What I’m trying to do there is present some songs that I feel have some depth.” Diffie reached his goal to create songs with messages especially with the single, “You Can’t Go Home.” The song’s message, “I came looking for a feeling/But the feeling’s gone/You can go back/But you can’t go back home.” Los Angeles Times reviewer John Roos remarked that the song is “a more realistic bookend to Diffie’s warmly nostalgic first hit, ’Home.’” And countrycool.com praised Diffie’s effort as “an album to remember.” Despite such favorable reviews, Diffie felt he had not reached all of his goals. As he told rockvillage.com, “I would like [to write a song]… about my son Tyler who has Down’s syndrome.”
Thus, Diffie has been given the gift of acceptance—from country music and from his fans. He has also learned not only how to accept an imperfect gift, but how to learn from that imperfect gift as well. Perhaps that lesson has influ–enced how he would like to be remembered: “I hope I’d always be known as a great singer,” he explained to countrystars.com, “but that’s really secondary. If people could say, ’He wasagood friend… a nice guy… someone you could trust, ’ I’d be really satisfied. Strip everything else away, and those are the things that matter the most.”
A Thousand Winding Roads, Epic, 1990.
Regular Joe, Epic, 1992.
Honky Tonk Attitude, Epic, 1993.
Third Rock From The Sun, Epic, 1994.
Life’s So Funny, Epic, 1995.
Mr. Christmas, Epic, 1995.
Twice Upon A Time, Epic, 1997.
Greatest Hits, Epic, 1998.
A Night To Remember, Epic, 1999.
Country Music, May/June 1991; July/August 1993.
Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1999.
News–Times, May 17, 1997.
People, Fall 1994.
Tennessean (Nashville), January 5, 1991.
“CHAT–A–LOG: Joe Diffie,” http://www.rockvillage.com (November 16, 1999).
Country, http://www.cdnow.com (November 16, 1999).
“Get to Know Joe,” Official Joe Diffie Web Site, http://www.joediffie.com (November 16, 1999).
“Joe Diffie, A Night To Remember” The World of Country Music, http://www.countrycool.com (November 16, 1999).
“Joe Diffie,” Great American Country Joe Diffie Page, http://www.countrystars.com (November 16, 1999).
“Joe Diffie,” iMusic Country Showcase, http://www.imusic.com (November 16, 1999).
“Making Hit Records Is No Joke For Joe Diffie,” New Country: Joe Diffie, available at http//www.cciweb.com (November 16, 1999).
—Ann M. Schwalboski
Joe Diffie entered a crowded field of talented, good-looking male country vocalists in early 1990; despite the competition, the clever lyricist with what People called a “booming tenor and wide-open vocal range” achieved stardom in a very short time, racking up an unprecedented series of chart successes. His appeal was due in great part to his ability to cross the boundary separating traditional country vocal styles from the pop and rock-influenced sound that has increasingly come to dominate Nashville’s musical output. Diffie is also versatile, a quality developed over years of diligent apprenticeship in several areas of the music business.
Born in Duncan, Oklahoma, in 1958, Diffie had musical ambitions from a tender age. He has an early memory of his father listening to a record by country music giant George Jones and saying that nobody else could sing like that. “And I thought, ’I can,‘” Diffie recalled. “When I got a little older, I was one of those guys who knew every dad-gum song on the radio and would run people crazy singing them all,” he told Bob Allen of Country Music magazine. “It was almost like I couldn’t help it.” His father’s record collection included the classic figures of country vocal artistry—Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Lefty Frizzell as well as Jones. They were his favorites.
Despite this initial focus, an early marriage and the realities of earning a living completely curtailed Diffie’s musical activities for many years. He worked briefly in a Texas oil field—“That was nasty, nasty work; you had oil all over you all the time,” he told the Nashville Tennessean’s Thomas Goldsmith—then returned to Oklahoma and landed a job as a machinist, a position he held for nine years. “I hated every second of that foundry job, just detested it,” he said. But he concedes that had the foundry not shut down and thrown him out of work, in 1986, he likely would have remained there indefinitely.
Unemployment brought Diffie to a crisis. His marriage disintegrated, and his weight ballooned to 264 pounds. But, even while he was still at the foundry, music had begun to creep back into his life. He joined a gospel quartet at church and then contributed bluegrass vocals to a band called Special Edition that played fairly widespread club dates and recorded two vanity-label albums. He invested in a home studio, making recordings for gospel quartets and local bands. Diffie also took up songwriting. Word came from a Nashville publisher that country favorite Randy Travis was considering recording one of his compositions. This encouraged
For the Record…
Born December 28, 1958, in Duncan, OK; son of Joe Riley Diffie (a teacher, rancher, and welder); married Janise Parker (divorced, 1986); married Debbie Jones (a nurse technician), 1988; children: (first marriage) Parker, Kara, (second marriage) Tyler, Drew. Education: Attended Cameron University.
Worked in Texas oil field, 1977, and as machinist in foundry, 1977-1986; sang with group Special Edition; built home studio and recorded gospel quartets and local bands; worked on loading dock of Gibson Guitar Company, Nashville, TN; began writing songs for other artists; songwriter for publisher Forest Hills Music, 1987—; singer on demo tapes, 1987-89; signed to Epic Records, 1990, and released debut album, A Thousand Winding Roads, 1990.
Awards: Nomination for male vocalist of the year, Country Music Association, 1992.
Addresses: Home —Nashville, TN. Record company — Epic Records, 34 Music Square E., Nashville, TN 37203. Publicist— Starstruck Entertainment, P.O. Box 121996, Nashville, TN 37212.
Diffie to pack up and leave for Nashville in December of 1986—on funds borrowed from his folks. The timing seemed right as he had been unable to find employment in the economically depressed Southwest.
In Nashville, Diffie continued to pay his dues, taking a job on the loading dock at the Gibson Guitar Company. Eventually, though, his familiarity with the process of music-making began to open doors for him. One day he picked up a stranded neighbor who was an established songwriter and in return, extracted a promise of songwriting collaboration; soon Diffie’s name appeared on albums by several established stars. In 1987 he landed a position at Forest Hills Music as a staff songwriter. Demand grew for his singing skills as well; he lent vocals to hundreds of the demonstration records that flow between publishers’ offices and recording studios. “It was a great training ground as far as getting familiar with the studio atmosphere,” he told Country Music. Some of these demos found their way to CBS producer Bob Montgomery, who signed Diffie to the Epic label in 1990.
His first album, A Thousand Winding Roads, generated a staggering four Number One singles: “Home,” “If You Want Me To,” “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets,” and “New Way to Light Up an Old Flame.” “Home” was the first single in country music history to top the charts of all the major music-business magazines simultaneously. The song is a ballad of nostalgia in the finest tradition of country music. But Diffie also demonstrated himself a master of many other styles on the album, from zippy fiddle swing to romantic crooning to hardcore honky-tonk dance music. Each single seemed remarkably fresh; Diffie appeared to be breaking out on all stylistic fronts at once. His witty songwriting also contributed to the album’s success. A reviewer for Country Music commented, “‘Pour Another Shot of Liquid Heartache’ and ‘New Way to Light Up an Old Flame’ are at once so clever, yet so down-home and so sincere, that they could have come straight from the pens of honky tonk poet laureates of yesteryear.”
Diffie flourished in Nashville. A natural showman, he began to open concerts for some of the biggest names in country music; soon he was headlining his own shows. These performances amply showcased his vocal adaptability, which allowed him to tackle cover versions of music by artists from Merle Haggard to boogie rockers ZZ Top. On the image front, Diffie shed more than 50 pounds, and Nashville’s hairstylists began to work their magic on him. It was no great surprise when his concerts started to attract large numbers of female fans. By 1993, Diffie was working out for two hours a day with a personal trainer. “This business is real image-oriented,” he acknowledged to Country Music’s Allen. “You gotta compete with the Clint Blacks and Alan Jacksons, and those are some real handsome guys.” Diffie remarried in 1988 and added two more children to the pair from his previous marriage.
The singer continued to stay ahead of the pack by dedicating himself to the craft of songwriting. “I think you have to be multi-dimensional to be an artist nowadays,” he told the Music City News. “There’s so much competition that if you don’t have the whole package, somebody else does.” Diffie formally scheduled writing time and often worked with collaborators. Striving for discipline, he once confessed to Country Song Round-up that “inspiration is something you just kind of have to put aside a lot of times.”
Diffie’s sustained concentration on songwriting paid off as he put together his second album, Regular Joe, which was released in April of 1992. He co-wrote four of the album’s ten tracks, including its two most successful singles, the Number One jukebox staple “Is It Cold in Here (Or Is It Just You)” and the fine down-and-out anthem “Ships That Don’t Come In.” Like its predecessor, the disc yielded four solid hit singles, which displayed an even wider range of styles than had the artist’s first four hits. “Next Thing Smokin’” is full-tilt rock and roll, while “Startin’ Over Blues” is closely modeled on country legend Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues,” a record almost 50 years old. The album garnered Diffie a nomination for male vocalist of the year from the Country Music Association.
Diffie also had great success in 1992 as half of a duet with Country Music Association female vocalist of the year Mary-Chapin Carpenter; the pair performed Carpenter’s wonderfully simple love song “Not Too Much to Ask” live and in the studio. Carpenter requested Diffie as her partner because she felt he combined an understanding of classic country singing with a uniquely modern interpretation.
Summer of 1993 saw the release of Diffie’s Honky Tonk Attitude, which featured the gem “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die),” a favorite on the Country Music Television cable channel. Country Music’s Rich Kienzle felt the album took Diffie “further into that idiom where he shows the gutsiness that many younger singers never quite catch. It’s New Traditionalism without compromise, but music that fans of certain more modern-sounding singers can enjoy as well.” Attitude sported up-tempo numbers worthy of lively line dances, “a modern take on hillbilly boogie of the 1940s and 50s,” and “sensitive, evocative and totally believable” ballads and “story songs.” Kienzle praised Diffie’s wit and sharp imagery throughout his critique and concluded, “Diffie’s found a focus and a strength here .... and if this is the direction he chooses to go in the future, it’s easy to anticipate more albums as good as this one.”
A Thousand Winding Roads (includes “Home,” “If You Want Me To,” “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets,” and “New Way to Light Up an Old Flame”), Epic, 1990.
Regular Joe (includes “Ships That Don’t Come In,” “Next Thing Smokin’,” “Is It Cold in Here (Or Is It Just You),” and “Startin’ Over Blues”), Epic, 1992.
Honky Tonk Attitude (includes “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die”), Epic, 1993.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 25, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, January 23, 1992.
Country Music, May/June 1991; January/February 1992; July/August 1993.
Country Song Roundup, March 1992.
Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1992.
Music City News (Nashville, TN) January 1992.
People, April 26, 1993.
Tennessean (Nashville), January 5, 1991.
—James M. Manheim