The country music community lost a honky-tonk hero when Joe Diffie died on March 29, 2020, from COVID-19 complications.
Mustachioed and mulleted, Joe personified the blue-collar bravado of country music in the 1990s. Along with artists like Aaron Tippin and Mark Chesnutt, Joe helped bring the swagger of the working man’s way of life back to country music.
It was a natural fit for Joe, who lived a blue-collar life in Oklahoma before finding his country music calling in Nashville. From driving a truck to working in a foundry, Joe wasn’t playing the part. He lived the part.
Joe Diffie Makes His Mark
In 1986, Joe was an ironworker at a foundry in Duncan, Okla., where he stood on a concrete slab and ran a machine eight hours a day. When the business went under and Joe couldn’t find any work, he decided to give Nashville a try.
A job at Gibson Guitar allowed Joe the freedom to pursue his calling while earning his keep. Three years after making the move to Music City, Joe signed a record deal. His success on country radio was immediate. Joe released his debut single, “Home,” in August 1990. By November, it was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
While it’s more commonplace today, topping the charts with a debut single put an artist in pretty exclusive company in 1990, with names like Webb Pierce (“Wondering,” 1951) and Clint Black (“A Better Man,” 1989).
“Home” was the start of Joe’s reign on the charts in the 1990s. More No. 1 hits followed, including “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” “Third Rock From the Sun,” “Pickup Man,” and “Bigger Than the Beatles.”
Of course, Joe released “John Deere Green” in 1993. While the tune reached No. 5, it became his signature song. When you think of Joe Diffie, you think of Billy Bob’s water-tower commitment to Charlene on a hot summer night.
Remembering the ‘Pickup Man’
While Joe was never an awards-show darling, he managed to net a handful of big nominations, including Male Vocalist of the Year at the 1992 CMA Awards. Perhaps hearkening back to his cog-in-the-wheel upbringing, Joe found his most noteworthy successes in supporting roles, including winning a Grammy Award in 1999 for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals when he teamed with Clint Black, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and more on “Same Old Train.” He also won the 1993 CMA Award for Vocal Event of the Year for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” with George Jones, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and more.
Joe’s chart success slowed down considerably in the 2000s, but he continued to remain a fan-favorite on the road. He regularly performed more than 100 shows a year until his death in 2020.
“It’s one of—if not the—biggest milestone in my career,” said Joe to the Writers Room podcast. “It makes you feel proud to say you’re a member of the Grand Ole Opry. It’s just been such a, obviously, revered institution for so long. There’s just something special about it.”
We lost a good one in 2020. Thanks for the memories, Joe.