Joe Diffie loved The Palm, the original one on Sunset near the curve. Loved the way GiGi, the maître d’, treated him “all classy, and stuff.” He and his managers Johnny Slate and Danny Morrison used to pour in there for a late lunch, laughing like pirates over treasure, and order up big steaks, Lyonnaise potatoes, creamed spinach.
They used to take me and my best friend Emily, known to all as “Piglet,” there, tell us stories about how Music Row used to be, the crazy writing sessions, the pranks played – and the good guys who were no longer.
Last time I saw Joe, he was at the Opry a few months ago. Sliding offstage and into the darkness, escaping the bedlam, I hiss/whispered at him, and he pulled up short. Looking around, he spotted me, grabbed my wrist and pulled me away from the crowd. We both laughed about how sweet those days were, how vivid the characters.
Emily died at 26, way too young. Sunday, at 61, Joe Diffie went to heaven – making me the last survivor of those bawdy, rowdy lunches. Hard to believe how memories melt in tears, lives slide down the drain and the survivors look around, blinking, knowing the difference in the ecosystem and marveling at how few people really understand what was lost.
I first heard about Joe Diffie from Allen Brown, or Mike Martinovich, or maybe even Fletcher Foster. All hardcore Sony Nashville denizens, they trooped those hard traditional colors the way pageant queens flash their veneers: bright, blazing, without a pause. “George Jones, Holly,” came the play. “We’re talking George Jones, the songs, the tenor, the way he sings.”
I’ll be the judge of that, I thought. Jones was lightning hitting liquor in a metal oil can. Good luck with that, Mr. Joe Diffie.
And that first album cover with the blue tinted eyes! Oh, Lord. One more cowboy Casanova, with his mullet curling up. If only for the Cracker Barrel chic could I hold hope, and heavens, what hope there was. While everyone practiced some form of genuine country, most eschewed really leaning into the busted stuff, the honkers, the songs that wrenched your guts out, or sought to realign Friday night into a bad week exorcism.
Whether the swing of “If The Devil Danced in Empty Pockets,” the bass-dropping Jones sweep of “New Way To Light Up An Old Flame” that dropped into a more Texas shuffle, the stumbling Buck Owens-isms of “Liquid Heartache” or the trenchant divorcing ground bruised tenderness of “There Goes the Neighborhood,” Diffie kept his dignity throughout the emotional depths. Showcasing at Nashville’s low ceiling 328 Performance, he was an abashed, polyester-sporting hillbilly singer – and his voice had even more power and presence live.
To say he fired me up was an understatement. Coming of age writing post-Urban Cowboy country and black music for The Miami Herald, I had a soft spot for the hard stuff. Jones, Gary Stewart, Waylon, Mel Tillis, Willie, Razzy Bailey, Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee, John Conley, even Vern Gosdin set my career in motion – and the thick word play, vowels that stalled and started, notes that got bent like a wire hanger, as well as sneaky barroom piano, pooled pedal steel and thick layers of fiddle tickled me in ways that made no sense.
Sure, I wrote for Rolling Stone, covering Cowboy Junkies, Edie Brickell, Michelle Shocked, the Bangles and Cameo, but I also was their go-to- girl for Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, kd lang, Dwight Yoakam. Reviewed that first Clint Black album; fought for Keith Whitley’s obit.
So in the tumble of rock criticism, country music was my dirty little (not so) secret. The Los Angeles Times sent me down to the Orange County, two-three times a week to the Crazy Horse, the Coachhouse, the Celebrity Theater in the round, part of a double life that included dinners with, shopping guidance and whatever else for too many of the ‘80s A, B and C List country stars.
How was I to know one day, I’d be working at a label where Waylon, Dolly, Ricky Skaggs and especially Tammy were part of my life. Sure, I had the last glimmer of Rosanne Cash with the brilliant Interiors, but my responsibilities came more to breaking the next wave.
Joe Diffie, cigarette dangling from his mouth, stretching the seams and buttons was right at the front edge of the foam. Raised in Oklahoma, a hard bluegrasser before getting his deal, he wasn’t Smithsonian-ing his primary influences. He came by his Jones, his Haggard, his Willie, his Gosdin honest, it wasn ‘t studied, but osmosis from the jump.
And A Thousand Winding Roads, his debut with “Home,” his first single and #1, captured the essence of classic country. With a title track that professed,
Now the miles I put behind me ain’t as hard as the miles that lay ahead
And its much too late to listen to the words of wisdom that my daddy said
The straight and narrow path he showed me turned into a thousand winding roads
My footsteps carry me away, but in my mind I’m always going home,
the idyllic nature was evident. Not cloying, reductive or manipulative, just a genuine tugging for a place where all was simple, well, values held and promises made sense. He understood, he pined, but he never threw life into a Vaseline focused glaze.
His singing chops were ridiculous. Everybody knew that. But so was his edge. He had a way of being exactly what he was, that wasn’t obstinate, just wasn’t budging. Early in my time as the head of Media & Artist Development at Sony Nashville, they started giving the “Joe Diffie Weight Loss Report.”
A trainer and a nutritionist were ensconced on the road, determined to Crisco him into romantic balladeer land – so the company could take this hard country singer to the next level. Tragically, the number was always plus instead of less. Every week. Every. Week.
What nobody got was Fast Eddie, his tour manager, would get him cheeseburgers in the middle of the night to keep him happy. No amount of strength training, cardio and prepared meals can beat that. Nature versus nurture; reality versus someone else’s will. Pure folly.
“You know what?” I said four or five weeks in. “That number’s never going down. Face it: Joe’s a pig. He likes to eat, and he’s a big farm boy. That’s what they do.”
The silence was deafening. My boss had that swallowed-a-bug look on his face. The label head’s molars clenched. Since no one was talking, I kept going.
“Does anyone else realize there are more country music fans out there who look like Joe Diffie than look like Ricky Van Shelton? Collin Raye? Even Doug Stone? Let him be.”
“Can you two finish this in your office,” the label head said to my boss.
“Of course,” was his answer. An hour later, his “WTF?” was followed by “okay, break it down,” which I did. The next words were, “Write it up.”
Like a kid in detention, I was sent to my office to write what became the Regular Joe memo…
Who he was/why it mattered/how to support reality. Explaining he was the genuine article, the memo suggested making him SuperBubba, the guy who was the king of the Jiffy Lube, the air conditioning repairman, the used car salesman, the long haul trucker.
It was more complicated than that, but this isn’t the time for a marketing class. Martinovich, in his beautiful Armani suit, got it; called the managers to come over. Danny and Johnny looked like Jack Spratt and his wife: Morrison was squatty like a dorm refrigerator, Slate was tall and wiry like Stringbean.
As I worked through the layers, they kept looking at each other and grinning. When I got done, they whooped, high 5’d and went, “We got this.”
Of course, they did. They were the very same fabric. And so the album they were making morphed into Regular Joe, a high honky tonk in a postmodern era kind of record. They revved up the redneck, dialed in the hillbilly – and created the album aimed right at the heart of the people media centers disdain. It didn’t patronize; it didn’t trope. It didn’t even Dogpatch, “Hee Haw” or Daisy Mae Clampett.
Instead it swung from post-Hank Sr. in “Startin’ Over Blues,” to fiddle-‘n’cascading piano regret “Ain’t That Bad Enough” and the steel descending elegy for a love“Is It Cold In Here,” then whirled into Telecaster-slinging railroader “Next Thing Smoking” with stacked harmonies and an Elvis-evoking vocal nugget. But what really stood out was the self-defining title track; like “No Show Jones,” the 1992 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year nominee ramped up the tempo, threw some vocal javelins and professed that he would never get above his raising.
Understanding the complications of lives and loves washed out, Diffie leaned into the adult places of modern country as the first wave of hot young guys appeared. He was more interested in what Haggard and Jones would’ve sung, the people they’d appeal – and he didn’t worry too much about Marty Stuart or Alan Jackson, Vince Gill or Garth Brooks.
Our job was to protect the integrity of who he was, and that alone set him apart. As is often wont to do, promo showcases needed to happen. Beyond the Nashville play, the Roxy was booked – doors down from the Whiskey A-G0-Go, the West Hollywood club was intimate enough for people to experience his voice, to feel the power, the range, the sparks.
If we did our job right, Joe would walk out the authentic hillbilly singer, not a searing traditionalist. To make the point, my boss agreed and greenlit Tammy Wynette coming to California.
Tammy Wynette and I would wax on and on about certain vocal licks on different songs, mooning about how he’d bend and twist notes on a regular basis. She knew fearless vocalists – she’d been married to and sung with George Jones for years – and she couldn’t get enough.
So, we asked. Tammy agreed to fly across the country, get spangled up, go out onstage and sing “Golden Ring.” What better endorsement or authenticator?
Buck Owens sent a telegram, because he couldn’t get there. Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers sat with Wynette, playing escort to the First Lady of Country Music so she could sit in the house – and Joe did exactly what you’d expect.
No worry about being cool; no need to go find the hip songwriters. He was chalking up his own life, marking the betrayals and disappointments. Laughing after soundcheck, Joe and his managers were standing in the alley between the Roxy and the Whiskey, the singer having a cigarette. “Wait’ll you see the encore,” they kept taunting. “Just Wait.”
They wouldn’t tell, nor would they answer. Being who and what they were, they had no idea about how fast the room. After burning the club down, two standing ovations, back the band bounded onto the tiny stage.
The guitar burned and bounced like a pogo stick, the lick obvious, but confusing.
“Oh, God,” my best friend Emily said, the concern palpable. “They’re gonna play ‘Tush’.”
The Los Angeles Times critic’s face cracked, then fell on the table. It was over. The triumph was lost. Benmont looked concerned, tried to smile. But leave it to Tammy, “He sure is tearing that ZZ Top song up.”
The adrenalin was high. The show was unwound. The after-party was ahead. Climbing into an entirely too small car for all of us, “What did you think?” echoed like a canyon in my head.
“What did you think? We’re probably gonna lose The LA Times… the writer was loving it, and then that…”
“And then that?” Johnny or Danny guffawed. “That? THAT was our boy killing it.”
They laughed and laughed and laughed. I tried to chide them. They laughed harder. Finally Joe said, “Well, if he aint’ gonna like me for that, he don’t have to like me at all. I don’t care.”
And that was that. Calling the review tepid would be generous. No one spoke of it. No one had to. But the bigger point – which I would learn along the way – was they didn’t care what some fancy writer thought; they didn’t make records or play shows for the critics, but the working people. Joe Diffie was a working class hero, with a bunch of #1s and songs that made people laugh.
Whether singing “I met all my wives in traffic jams” in “Pick Up Man,” or exploring the butterfly effect in the very redneck one thing leads to another rampage down at Smokey’s Bar that made“Third Rock from the Sun” irresistible, he understood connecting with exactly who his fans were.
And how to make them laugh. When Honky Tonk Attitude was fixing to come out, I was known for blaring “John Deere Green” at peak levels, terrifying valets around own. Yes, “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox,” with its “Weekend At Bernies” video, became an Okie Irish blessing for the ages, but the idea of backwater farm boy using what he got to tell the girl?
One July in the midnight hour,
They climbed upon the water tower,
Stood on the rail and painted a ten foot heart
In John Deere green, on a hot summer night.
He wrote Billy Bob loves Charlene in letters three foot high,
And the whole town said that he should’ve use red
But it looked good to Charlene in John Deere Green.
In a world where things are set just so, Joe Diffie got the off-kilter. Thought it was pretty okay, and he leaned into it. “Bigger Than the Beatles,” with its retro video, suggested a notion of how powerful dreams are, how they can sustain us, take us places beyond our imagination.
But the novelty and irony was never really the point. As he was starting to achieve maximum altitude, Mary Chapin Carpenter was also approaching a zenith of sorts. With what would be her breakout Come On, Come On in its final stages, the hard country singer was enlisted for an almost baroque ballad of adult engagement “Not Too Much To Ask.” There were no two people less alike; no reason really – beyond label hybridizing – for them to ever sing together. Well, except that both had instruments that carried complicated emotions like desire and the fear of rejection, the hope for more against the knowledge of how fragile new love can be.
The song earned a Grammy nomination. Seeing Joe and Fast Eddie Blount in the lobby of the Shrine Auditorium, you could feel the nerves of someone being recognized for work they were proud of.
That’s the thing about music men, they’re always striving to do work they’re proud of. There was the gauntlet throwing “Honky Tonk Attitude” that defined the strip mall honky tonkification of America, even as he could unfurl the “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”-evoking pain of “If I Had Any Pride Left At All” seamlessly.
Figure this is a man who lived the songs he sang. Married almost as much as Steve Earle, with an including a very public affair with NASCAR widow Liz Allison, he embraced the messiness and disappointment of how happily ever after can unravel. It gave the sad songs a decided ring of truth, and it allowed him to go places with the ballads most people weren’t.
Just as importantly, when radio went away, he found a freedom that allowed for even more expansion, more expression. Homecoming, which not only returned him to Appalachian heartbreak with Alecia Nugent, Sonya Isaacs and Rhonda Vincent on vocals, deftly worked bluegrass to the point where a hard-charging take on the Black Crowe’s version of Otis Reddings’ “Hard To Handle” lived alongside “Tall Cornstalk,” “Lonesome and Dry As A Bone” and “Rain on Her Rubber Dolly.”
A secret handshake of sorts amongst musicians who know the difference, Kenny Chesney called me one night to see if I’d heard it. Raised as a bluegrasser at Eastern Tennessee State, he knew the difference – and wanted to turn me on.
Even this fall, Diffie didn’t just issue a 500 piece vinyl-only re-recording of his greatest hits – called Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie playing with the signature line in Jason Aldean’s “1994.” He teamed with Louisiana roots rocker Marc Broussard for a steaming take on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride & Joy.”
Joy. Yes, exactly. No matter what, there was a way to find joy. Life delighted the 61 year old, taken entirely too soon by the COVID-19 virus. He loved his kids, seeing them do well, find their way and their talents. He was proud, thrilled with just their being.
Simple things seemed to matter. And everywhere you took him – tv show, photo shoot, some club – he made friends. Everybody liked him, because – seemingly – he liked everybody.
Last time I saw Joe was that Saturday night at the Opry, where he’s been a member for over a quarter century. Sandwiched in on one of the Saturday night sets, he had his daughter with him, people wanting to shake his hand or get a picture. He couldn’t have been happier, smiling and nodding at the fans. It wasn’t about remembering how famous he almost was, or stroking an ego that required some vast tonnage of worship.
Some country stars show up and believe they’re here for the fans. It’s not about making money, though they need to make a living, nor is it about a flossy lifestyle. For a lot of them, it’s making music – and staying connected.
Right now, my eyes are swollen shut from crying, Between losing Joe and John Prine fighting for his life, it’s a bit too much take. When I heard the news Joe was under doctor’s care, I texted him – knowing there’s no contact when you’re in the hospital, which presumably “under the care of medical personnel” means. If you can’t have your family there, a quick note from an old friend.
I never heard back, which seemed odd from the guy who’d Facebook IM with you for 20 minutes. Maybe he’d already slipped under. Maybe Danny and Johnny were cutting up, telling him to “C’mon! We got this place figured out. We know where the best room for your voice is.”
Knowing Joe, though, it seems odd that he’d slip away like this.
The yin and yang of Joe Diffie balances two truths. “Ships That Don’t Come In” is a quiet, elegant ballad that honors the people who never had a chance. Two beat up by life guys sitting on bar stools commiserating and macerating in wisdom, the older shows the younger a clarity that can be a compass.
And as he ordered one last round
He said I guess we can’t complain
God made life a gamble
And we’re still in the game…
An elegy, it is also an homage to what might be. Not because it will, but because it could. As the hushed song quietly builds, there’s a tension. As the song sweeps into the final chorus, there’s a big vocal leap to an impossible note. Of course Diffie collects, gathers and nails it. That’s why he persevered in spite of everything.
When you can believe in what could, you can find the grace to raise a glass,
“To those who stand on empty shores And spit against the wind
And those who wait forever
For ships that don’t come in…”
When you see that sort of embrace, you can find a zen ease to the ironic in “Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (When I Die).” With a gospel piano that descends into a jaunty neoDixieland number, Diffie’s will to truly live after he’s gone speaks to that passion for what life holds.
The opening gambit offers a true Christian embrace of the concept, as well as a strong sense of the things that he lives for.
Well I ain’t afraid of dying it’s the thought of being dead
I want to go on being me once my eulogy’s been read
Don’t spread my ashes out to sea don’t lay me down to rest
You can put my mind at ease if you fill my last request
Prop me up beside the jukebox if I die…
Jaunty, a little silly, but maybe the way to go. When we’re gone, who wants their loved ones to be sad? And what good ole boy worth his Skoal ring wants to miss any of the action? It may not be conventional, but it’s absolutely honky tonk ever after after all.
Sitting here quietly, so much to say, and yet, how much more needs to be said, I can only smile. Beyond the obvious suspects, I wonder if Emily was standing off to the side, considering the husky singer, just like she did on Earth.
“Hey, Joe,” she’d say, mouth turned up in a bow. “That’s so Hendrix.”
“I know, Emily,” he’d say, looking into her eyes. “And it’s weird to see you like this.”
“Don’t worry. Joe,” she’ll say. “Up here the music isn’t so segmented. I know where the good snacks are – and I can get you into some pretty cool places to write. I think you’re gonna like it here – and I know the angels are gonna love hearing you sing.”