He wasn’t ruggedly, cowboy handsome like Alan Jackson or George Strait. He had a mullet, but he wasn’t as cool as Billy Ray Cyrus. Yet maybe his Average Joe appearance made him more relatable. And that helped him rise to stardom. But for my money I’d offer a much more simple explanation: Joe Diffie just made fantastic country music.
He burst onto the scene 1990 with a simple yet heartwarming song about “Home”. There were a ton of those types of songs in country music back then, yet his was still memorable for its nostalgic and empirical appeal to things like Sunday family suppers and hearing your mama sing “Amazing Grace”. Growing up in Toookeydoo, SC, it spoke to me and my five senses deeply. On that same debut album, he also struck gold with the fun and lyrically unique “If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)”. Cliches about the devil are a dime a dozen in the American South but this one was new. It was immediately obvious that this man had the sound it took to be a star.
For a full decade, he consistently tapped into the heart of the culture of the genre. And no doubt it always struck his audience as genuine and sincere. Songs like “Pick Up Man” and “Honky Tonk Attitude” became mantras for legions of people I knew. And while I don’t endorse the lifestyle it seems to celebrate, “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)” was played loudly and danced to without inhibition at countless of my friends’ parties. As a result, Joe Diffie was the face of country music in the ’90s to me.
Like essentially all of his contemporaries, Joe Diffie made a huge living on songs about love and heartache. But he never offered up trite contributions and as a result, they elicited deep emotion from my teenage soul. For instance, I listened to “Is It Cold In Here?” “So Help Me, Girl,” and “A Night To Remember” over and over when I was in the midst of infatuation or breakup grief.
Yet I think by far his most poignant song was not about love but about war, disappointment, and perspective in “Ships That Don’t Come In”. People just were not offering up that type of profound thoughtfulness back then in mainstream country. At least not on that specific topic. To this day it is the type of song that I must stop everything to listen to when it comes on.
BILLY BOB ❤️ CHARLENE
I have held one song until the very end, so that I could tell two stories about it. “John Deere Green” is Joe Diffie’s magnum opus to me. Because it was far more than a fun four minutes of music. Or even a story about redneck love.
During my sophomore year in high school, the student body voted on our favorite songs. “John Deere Green” came in 2nd. The school’s administration allowed the students to make our own videos of the top five songs and they showed them after the morning news segment during homeroom. My best friend and I signed up to do the one for this Joe Diffie classic. Sadly, we were the only ones to sign up.
When the time came to shoot the video, my friend backed out in embarrassment. I was too stoked to do it to give up. I went and found the one person I knew would be bold enough to help me pull it off without any help or any rehearsal: My brother Ashley. He didn’t even hesitate. He got so into it with his air guitar and lip-syncing that I basically relegated myself to the background and jumped to the front only to do the bridge. The only other thing in the video was two guys who overheard me tell Ashley I needed help who decided to stand in the background and headbang literally the entire song.
The school librarian would tell me later that the school’s superintendent watched the video in the library the morning it aired and was crying, nearly on the floor laughing. I confess I am laughing quite hard just recalling it all as I type. Ashley and I are only 13 months apart. And we have been super close for a long time. But for the most part we stayed out of each other’s way in high school. This is one of few things that brought us together during those three years of social and educational overlap. For that, as much anything, Joe Diffie will always have a special place in my heart.
A second story that means almost as much is from many years later. I was a youth pastor in Chicago at a church plant. And we took our first-ever significant mission trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Most of the youth were young and newer to the group. And that week was special as we worked hard and bonded intimately as a family. On the way back we were in a fun mood for all 900+ miles in our van. And as we pulled back into the city on a whim I put on John Deere Green and blasted it. Those urban teenagers loved it. Soon the van was hopping with people having the time of their lives. As a result, it became a tradition every year we drove for our mission trip to listen to that song when we returned and hit the city line.
Joe Diffie had several other distinct songs that fit his personality and voice like a glove, like “Third Rock from the Sun” and “This Is Your Brain”. His discography leaves nothing to be desired. Country fans like me can name 40 or 50 bands or artists that we adored from that decade in which his career was white-hot. Aside from Sawyer Brown, I don’t think any of them left their mark on me quite as Diffie did. I mourn his passing. But I do so the way entertainers should be primarily honored–by listening to and joyfully and passionately singing his best work. And also by thinking about the stories and memories he, and they, gifted us.