On This Day: Joe Diffie Scores No. 1 Hit With ‘If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)’ in 1991

by Jim Casey
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Joe Diffie scored his second chart-topper when “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on June 15, 1991. The tune was featured on Joe’s 1990 debut album, A Thousand Winding Roads. In addition, the debut project included Top 5 hits “Home” (No. 1), “If You Want Me To” (No. 2), and “New Way (To Light Up an Old Flame)” (No. 2).

The success of Joe’s 1990 debut album was an amazing accomplishment for an artist who had been working in an iron foundry just four years earlier. After toiling in the Oklahoma iron foundry for eight years, Joe Diffie took his blue-collar talents to Nashville in 1986. With a background playing country, gospel, bluegrass, and rock, Joe could pick and sing with the best of them. With the move to Nashville, he hoped to follow in the chart-topping footsteps of his heroes Merle Haggard and George Jones.

Joe got a day job at Gibson Guitars while playing the Nashville honky-tonk scene at night. He eventually left Gibson for a staff position at Forest Hills Music. As he wrote and sang demos, Joe captured the interest of Epic Records. On Sept. 7, 1990, Joe released his debut album, A Thousand Winding Roads. That same year, he debuted on the Grand Ole Opry.

Dancing Devil

Immediately, fans gravitated toward the combination of Joe’s everyman appeal and his exceptional ability to pick, sing, and turn a clever phrase. Joe’s debut single, “Home,” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in September 1990, just as his album was dropping. His sophomore single, “If You Want Me To,” peaked at No. 2 in early 1991.

Of course, Joe’s third single, “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)” was released in April 1991. Penned by Ken Spooner and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Kim Williams (“Three Wooden Crosses”), “If the Devil Danced” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on June 15, 1991—30 years ago.

Joe Diffie the Pickup Man

With his mustache and mullet, Joe personified the blue-collar swagger of country music in the 1990s. Joe joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1993. For the next decade, he carved out an impressive resume on the charts. Additional No. 1 hits followed, including “Third Rock From the Sun,” “Pickup Man,” and “Bigger Than the Beatles,” as well as signature hits “John Deere Greene” (No. 5) and “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)” (No. 3).

Diffie earned the 1993 CMA Award for Vocal Event of the Year for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” with George Jones, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and more. Joe won a Grammy Award in 1999 for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals when he teamed with Clint Black, Ricky Skaggs, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, and more on “Same Old Train.”

Joe Diffie died on March 29, 2020, from COVID-19 complications. We sure do miss him.

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