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. 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.
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 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 Roundup 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."
Joe Diffie's Career
Joe Diffie's Awards
Nomination for male vocalist of the year, Country Music Association, 1992.
- Selective Works
- 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