Multi-million selling Grand Ole Opry star Joe Diffie passed away on Sunday, March 29, following a brief illness. Diffie, 61, announced last Friday that he had tested positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus. He has now become the first music star to die from the disease.
One of the biggest country hit makers of the 1990s, Joe Diffie had more than 20 Top 10 hits. They include such No. 1 smashes as “Home,” “Third Rock from the Sun” and “Pickup Man.” He holds four Gold Record awards and two Platinum ones for his albums.
He co-wrote nine of his hits as well as successful songs for Jo Dee Messina, Holly Dunn, Tim McGraw and Conway Twitty. During his career, he won both Grammy and CMA awards.
Known as a “singer’s singer,” he received praise from such greats as Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Gene Watson, Vern Gosdin, Liza Minelli, Garth Brooks, George Strait and Buck Owens. Diffie celebrated his 25th anniversary as an Opry star last year with a show including Vince Gill, Michael Ray and Ricky Skaggs.
Born Dec. 28, 1958 in Duncan, OK, Diffie was raised in a musical household. He was singing in gospel groups such as Higher Purpose by the time he was in high school. He spent four years as a member of the bluegrass band The Special Edition and made his recording debut by recording an album with that group in 1985.
While working at an iron foundry in Oklahoma, Diffie also ran a small recording studio. When the foundry laid him off and he went through a divorce, there was no reason not to start over in Nashville. He arrived in 1986.
Diffie took a job at the Gibson Guitar factory, then landed a staff songwriting gig on Music Row. Hank Thompson recorded his “Love on the Rocks” in 1988. Holly Dunn scored a big 1989 hit with his “There Goes My Heart Again.”
He also attracted attention for his vocals on demos for other songwriters. Diffie sang the demos of such future hits as “I’ve Cried My Last Tear for You” (Ricky Van Shelton), “Born Country” (Alabama), “You Don’t Count the Cost” (Billy Dean) and “I Cross My Heart” (George Strait). This led to a recording contract with Epic Records in 1990.
Joe Diffie’s first single was “Home,” which was notable as a debut disc that hit No. 1. In 1991-92, he scored successive hits with “If You Want Me To,” “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” “New Way (To Light Up an Old Flame),” “Is It Cold in Here,” and “Ships That Don’t Come In.” In 1992, he earned a Grammy nomination for “Not Too Much to Ask,” his duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter. He was also nominated as the CMA Male Vocalist that year.
Diffie won a CMA Award in 1993 for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair,” recorded with George Jones and other guest vocalists. His songwriting continued to make waves as “I’m the Only Thing (I’ll Hold Against You)” and “Memory Lane” both became 1993 singles, for Conway Twitty and Tim McGraw, respectively. Also in 1993, Joe Diffie was inducted into the Opry cast and co-hosted the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award show (a gig he repeated in 1999).
Most of his early singles were ballads, at which his powerful honky-tonk tenor excelled. Beginning in 1993, a different Joe Diffie emerged on disc. He released a string of wildly successful uptempo novelty tunes. These included such hits as “Honky Tonk Attitude” (1993), “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox” (1993), “John Deere Green” (1994), “Third Rock from the Sun” (1994), “Pickup Man” (1994), “I’m in Love with a Capital U” (1995), “Bigger Than the Beatles” (1996) and “C-O-U-N-T-R-Y” (1996).
Following a second divorce, he began a long relationship with Liz Allison, the widow of NASCAR star Davey Allison. Diffie had sung at Davey’s funeral after the race-car driver died in a 1993 helicopter accident. The new romance led to coverage in People magazine and several tabloids in the mid 1990s.
In 1996, Ford Trucks selected “Pickup Man” as its jingle, which Diffie re-recorded for a national ad campaign.
The following year, Diffie was presented with the Country Radio Broadcasters Humanitarian Award for his work with Tennessee Special Olympics, Teach for America, Operation Smile, Parade of Pennies, the Children’s Organ Transplant Association and other charities. He did an annual concert and golf tournament to benefit First Steps because he was the father of a child with Down Syndrome.
Also in 1997, he made his acting debut opposite Johnny Cash in the TV movie All My Friends Are Cowboys. He closed out the year as the Grand Marshall of the Nashville Christmas Parade.
He re-entered the Top 10 on the country charts with 1998’s “Texas Size Heartache.” Then he earned a Grammy Award for his participation in the 1998 Marty Stuart all-star outing “Same Old Train.”
The hits “A Night to Remember” (1999), “The Quittin’ Kind” (1999), “It’s Always Somethin’” (2000) and “In Another World” (2001) took Diffie into the new century. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
Diffie signed with Broken Bow and hit the charts again with “Tougher Than Nails” in 2004. The following year, he returned to No. 1 as the co-writer of Jo Dee Messina’s smash “My Give a Damn’s Busted.”
Rounder Records picked him up in 2010 to distribute his CD Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album. The record’s supporting cast included The Grascals, Shawn Camp, Rhonda Vincent, Rob Ickes, Aubrey Haynie, Alecia Nugent, Bradley Walker, Harley Allen and Charlie Cushman. Later that year, Diffie published Homecoming: The Diffie Family Cookbook.
In recent years, Joe Diffie had returned to mainstream country recording. He teamed with Aaron Tippin and Sammy Kershaw on the 2013 CD All in the Same Boat.
Younger artists have begun to acknowledge his influence. Blake Shelton sings his “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets).” Diffie is prominently name-checked in such hits as Jason Aldean’s “1994” (2012) and Chris Young’s “Raised on Country” (2019).
Joe Diffie is survived by his wife Tara and by children Parker, Kara, Drew, Tyler and Kylie. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.