Joe Diffie, a consistent hitmaker on the country charts and member of the Grand Ole Opry, died Sunday, March 29, from complications of COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. He was 61 years old. Diffie scored five No. 1 hits, including his debut single “Home” and “Third Rock From the Sun,” during a long career that began in 1990. He also won a Grammy award in 1995 for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for “Same Old Train,” with Marty Stuart.
Diffie was born December 28, 1958, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and spent the early years of his adult life playing clubs in and around Oklahoma while working in a foundry. He knew of hard times and financial hardship. After the foundry closed, Diffie had to file for bankruptcy and also divorced his wife, He moved to Nashville in 1988 and landed a job with the Gibson Guitar Corporation. He made his entry into the music business in the same manner as many male artists at the time did, by recording demos for songwriters. Diffie also wrote songs, with one of his co-writes, “There Goes My Heart Again,” becoming a Top 5 hit for Holly Dunn.
In 1989, Diffie signed with Epic Records and made his chart debut the following year with “Home,” which hit No. 1. He made an instant impression with a strong voice that was undoubtedly country, but also tinged with soulful influences, drawing favorable comparisons with George Jones. Versatility proved an additional trait. His second No. 1 single, “If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets),” was a lighthearted tune that showed a completely different side of him.
Diffie also possessed an impressive range, best exhibited on his 1992 hit, “Ships That Don’t Come In.” Towards the end of the song, Diffie’s voice rises up in dramatic fashion, not in an opulent or showy way but for the effect the tune required. Though Diffie was considered a promising new vocalist, he missed out on award nominations, while turning out a consistent body of hits.
Throughout the 1990s, Diffie’s hits alternated between fun-loving fare like “John Deere Green” and the No. 1 hits “Third Rock From the Sun” and “Pickup Man” with tender ballads such as “So Help Me Girl” and “A Night to Remember.” The jaunty “Pickup Man,” which debuted in 1994, proved his most popular single, staying at the top of the charts for four weeks. His fifth and final No. 1 came with the ditty “Bigger Than the Beatles” in 1996.
Diffie’s most successful album was Third Rock From the Sun, released in 1994, which featured the title track and “Pickup Man.” The album peaked at the No. 6 spot and was certified platinum for sales of one million copies.
His last album for Epic was A Night to Remember in 1999, which included the hit title tune and “It’s Always Somethin’,” a single that peaked at No. 5. After Epic, Diffie recorded for Monument and Broken Bow, with only marginal results. He enjoyed his final Top 10 hit in 2001 with “In Another World” for Monument.
Though he had been absent from the charts since 2004, Diffie was hardly idle. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1993 and often performed on the Opry stage. He released an acclaimed record in 2010, Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album, featuring collaborations with top bluegrass acts like The Grascals and Rhonda Vincent. In 2012, he recorded an album with Aaron Tippin and Sammy Kershaw, All in the Same Boat.
On the personal side, Diffie was married four times. He had a son who was born with Down syndrome, which affected Diffie in a profound way. For several years, he hosted a golf tournament and charity concert to raise funds for First Steps, which benefited physically and mentally challenged children.