Joe Diffie, a country star, Grammy-winner and longtime Grand Ole Opry member, died Sunday from coronavirus complications. He was 61.
A representative for Diffie confirmed his death in a news release. The “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green” singer announced Friday that he tested positive for the virus.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Diffie enjoyed a consistent run of country hits in the early 1990s. “Pickup Man” was among five chart-toppers he scored in the first half of the decade.
He moved to Nashville in 1986, after losing his factory job in Oklahoma.
“When I got laid off, I was like, ‘Well, you know what, I think I’m just going to try it,’” he told Bobby Bones in 2019. “I just loaded up everything I could get in this old beat up car I had, and off I went.”
He took a job at the Gibson guitar plant, and sang on demos for songs that would become hits for Ricky Van Shelton, Alabama and Billy Dean. After scoring his first hit as a songwriter (Holly Dunn’s “There goes My Heart Again”), Diffie signed a record deal with Epic, and success immediately followed.
He topped the charts with his very first single. 1990’s “Home” was a natural fit for a young man chasing fame and fortune in Music City, but in its lyrics, he surmised “the only treasures that I’ll ever know/ are long ago and far behind and wrapped up in my memories of home.”
Though he had numerous hits under his belt, Diffie truly hit his commercial stride in 1993 with the release of “Honky Tonk Attitude,” his first platinum album. Between it and the platinum follow-up, “Third Rock From The Sun” he scored six more Top 10 hits.
Diffie nearly balked at recording “John Deere Green,” a mid-tempo story of enduring love that would become one of his standards.
“I said, ‘Well, we can try it. We can can go into the studio and cut it, and if it doesn’t work out then we scrap it. Luckily, it worked out,” he told Bones in 2019.
Chart success didn’t follow Diffie far into the 21st century — his final top 10 hit was 2001’s “In Another World.” But as nostalgia grew for the country music of the 1990s, Diffie was continuously celebrated by modern stars — never more loudly than on Jason Aldean’s “1994,” which mentioned Diffie’s name more than a dozen times.
Diffie delivered his songs with a Southern grit that left a sustainable impact on modern country performers — “(I) got my honky tonk attitude from Joe Diffie,” Chris Young sang on 2019’s “Raised On Country.” But his warm, welcoming voice also endeared him to listeners, and was equally suited for drink-raising anthems and tender ballads.
“It’s super flattering,” Diffie told All Access of being name-checked in song. “It really is, but it’s taken me a little while to kind of get used to being in that role. I admit, I always heard songs about people [like] George Jones or Merle Haggard, and I just didn’t ever feel like I was at that level. But it’s a really big honor, and I’m just kind of happy to roll with it now.”
After releasing his last studio album, “All In The Same Boat,” in 2013, Diffie had reactivated his career in recent years. He released two new singles in 2018, and had been working on a new album entitled “I Got This.”
In 2019, Diffie offered his on-air talent to Tulsa radio station Big Country 99.5, hosting the mid-day show remotely via Nashville and on the road.
As news broke of Diffie’s passing on Sunday, fans turned to the singer’s classic songs on YouTube and streaming services. Among those was 1993’s “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die).” Diffie didn’t write the song, but he made it his own.
“Just let my headstone be a neon sign/ Just let it burn in memory of all of my good times,” he sang. “…I’ll be the life of the party, even when I’m dead and gone.”
Diffie’s passing is the first reported coronavirus-related death in the country music community. Famed playwright Terrance McNally, actor Mark Blum and reality TV chef Floyd Cardoz have died from COVID-19 complications.
As of Sunday afternoon, at least 33,261 people globally have died from COVID-19. The Tennessee Department of Health reported 1,537 cases state-wide Sunday. In Tennessee, seven people have died and 133 are hospitalized.
This is a developing story. Check back with Tennessean.com for more information.
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