“The Pickup Man” Joe Diffie has died due to complications from the Coronavirus. After announcing on Friday, March 27th that he had contracted COVID-19 and was receiving treatment for the illness, his publicist and family have confirmed that he passed away on Sunday, March 29th. He was 61-years-old.
Though his stint in the spotlight of commercial country was short, few burned as bright as Joe Diffie in the mid 90’s, with his music becoming synonymous with the era. Five #1 hits, and thirteen Top 5 songs were charted by Diffie in just five years, and were capped off by his 1994 Platinum-certified record Third Rock From The Sun. With his unmistakable mullet and easy attitude, he became a relatable star compared to some of the bigger arena acts of the era. An everyman of country music, his mix of novelty songs along with sincere ballads brought him a wide audience and mutual respect as a neotraditionalist of the era.
Born Joseph Logan Diffie in December 28th, 1958 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he came from a musical family with both his father and aunt working as musicians. He moved around a lot early in his life, including to Texas, Washington State, and Wisconsin, but settled back in Oklahoma and attended Cameron University in Lawton where he was smart enough to consider attending medical school, but instead dropped out, started working odd jobs, and joined a bluegrass band called Special Edition.
Soon Joe Diffie was sending demo tapes to Nashville and elsewhere, trying to bust into the music business. An aging Hank Thompson recorded his song “Love On The Rocks,” but that about as far as he got. Frustrated and wanting to pursue music full time, he divorced his wife at the time, and eventually moved to Nashville to pursue his musical dream.
Before Joe Diffie would take off as an entertainer, songs he wrote began to appear on the records of artists such as Alabama and Ricky Van Shelton. When Holly Dunn had a Top 5 hit with “There Goes My Heart Again” co-written and co-sung by Joe Diffie, his career took off, and he was shortly signed to Epic records in early 1990.
The success Joe Diffie would enjoy for the next half decade would be somewhat overshadowed by other superstars, but while the greater country music public was eating up Garth Books, Joe Diffie was the guy middle America couldn’t get enough of. Similar to the title of his second record Average Joe, Diffie felt like your funny next door neighbor, and right about the time you were disarmed, hit you with something more sincere. His first ever single “Home” went straight to #1 and helped define his career, but so did songs such as his last #1, “Bigger Than The Beatles” off his album Life’s So Funny that had people enjoying the more lighthearted side of his material.
But soon Joe Diffie became a product of his time, and the hits were harder to come by, though he continued to chart singles into the early 2000’s, and his core fans continued to support him. He became a bit typecast where if he released a serious song, people wanted him to be funny. And if he released a funny song, people felt he wasn’t to be taken seriously anymore. But he continued to play and perform, going back to his roots and releasing a bluegrass record in 2010 for Rounder Records. Joe Diffie was also a member of the Grand Ole Opry for over 25 years, and remained well-regarded throughout the country music community.
In recent years with the retro nature of music, there has been a resurgence of interest in the songs of Joe Diffie since he’s so synonymous with the 1990’s, and his work has proved to withstand the test of time. Jason Aldean’s song “1994” from 2012 may not enjoy the same fate, but the pseudo-tribute to Joe Diffie resonated with many due to the recall of so many of Joe’s greatest hits, including “John Deere Green,” “Ships That Don’t Come In,” “Honky Tonk Attitude,” and of course “Pickup Man,” which gave Diffie his nickname and biggest hit of his career. At the time of his death, Diffie was readying the release of a comeback record called I Got This on Silverado Records.
Joe Diffie’s passing hits home with many country fans, and with many worried about the impact of the Coronavirus. With the first high-profile death from the disease in country music, and in the popular music world in general, it resonates and increases the concern as the World sits in lock down, waiting for the pandemic to pass.
In his 1993 hit “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die),” Joe Diffie gives a satirical recitation of his final wishes. “I’ll be the life of the party, even when I’m dead and gone,” Diffie sings. And he will be, due to the everlasting contribution of his music.