Country music legend Joe Diffie would have been sixty-two years old today. The 90s country hitmaker passed away on March 29th due to complications related to COVID-19. He left behind a catalog of hit songs and albums.
His music ranged from traditional country and honky-tonk to the high lonesome sound of bluegrass. Someone with his range doesn’t come around often.
While Diffie will be sorely missed in the country music world, he left behind a catalog of music for us to enjoy. As we celebrate his birthday today, we’ll take a look at his career and some of his biggest hits.
Joe Diffie’s Beginnings and Career
As a child, Joe Diffie moved all around the country. He was born in Oklahoma but lived in Wisconsin, Washington, and Texas before returning to the Sooner State. The one thing that was constant in Diffie’s young life was music. His father played guitar and banjo and his mother sang. His taste in music was informed by the music his family performed as well as his father’s record collection.
As an adult, Diffie split his time between working hard and playing music. He worked in the oil fields and just before embarking on his serious musical career he worked in an Oklahoma foundry.
While working at the foundry, Joe Diffie played in two different bands. A gospel outfit called Higher Purpose and, later, the bluegrass band Special Edition. It was at this time that he started working toward a serious musical career. He built a recording studio at home and toured with Special Edition. At the same time, he recorded several demo tapes and sent them to various publishers in Nashville. In 1986, he moved to Nashville, took a job at Gibson Guitars, and started trying to break into the music industry.
Joe Diffie released his first studio album “A Thousand Winding Roads” in 1990. This album included his first two number-one singles, “Home” and the upbeat ode to being in debt, “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets.”
Some of Joe Diffie’s Biggest Hits
Joe Diffie had several top-ten hits in the 90s and early 2000s. Five of those would reach the top of the charts. We’re going to take a look at some of his biggest hits.
“Third Rock from the Sun”
Some of the best country songs of all time are story songs. This number-one hit tells an elaborate and humorous story. It has adultery, a bar, a UFO (kind of), and a solid moral. The story is great. Diffie’s vocals and the honky-tonk instrumentation on the track come together with the narrative to make this tune a monster hit.
“Bigger Than the Beatles”
This is such a sweet and clever song. On one hand, it’s about a musician playing bars and his girlfriend who is a waitress. They’re just regular people but they see each other as larger-than-life because of the love they share. On the other hand, the song contains some clever references.
The “yeah yeah yeah” background vocals reference the Beatles hit “She Loves You,” the title is also a Beatles reference. John Lennon once commented that the band was “bigger than Jesus”. So, If their love is bigger than the Beatles, that’s really saying something. It’s a sweet, fun, and kind of funny song.
“Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)”
This song has one of the greatest twists in country music history. It starts with a somber piano and a lonesome fiddle behind Joe Diffie’s subdued voice.
This continues until the end of the first verse, “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead/ I wanna 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.”
Leading into the chorus, the guitar comes in with a big walk up into a honky-tonk riff. The steel and fiddle come in hard, and Diffie starts to detail his final wishes. He wants to be propped up beside the jukebox of his favorite bar. It goes from somber to raucous in the blink of an eye. The song really showcases Joe Diffie’s range as a performer.
Wherever Joe Diffie is, I hope there’s a cold one in his hand and he’s singing his heart out. With all the legends we’ve lost this year, the afterlife is going to have one hell of a band.