Garth, Alan, and Reba may be the associated superstars of Nineties country music, but it’s impossible to think of the decade without the contributions of Joe Diffie. Even more so, without the Oklahoma native’s run of radio staples like “Home,” “John Deere Green,” and “Third Rock From the Sun,” there’d likely be no Jason Aldean, Luke Combs, or Morgan Wallen today. Which is what makes Diffie’s unexpected death on Sunday due to complications related to COVID-19 so hard to fathom. We look back at 10 songs of Diffie’s that sum up country’s ever-reliable “Pickup Man.”
The country singer’s debut single checked all the boxes of a stone-cold country song: crying dobro instrumentation, lyrical memories of better times, and Diffie’s yearning vocal. He reminisces about swimming holes and fishing poles, but it’s the imagery of his mother cooking dinner and his old man in his easy chair that brings a tear to the eye — along with all those straight and narrow paths he neglected to follow. He’s lost in the woods now, with home only a distant memory. Heartbreaking. J.H.
Inarguably one of the best truck songs in country music history, “Pickup Man” excels for two reasons: songwriters Howard Perdew and Kerry Kurt Phillips’ fine-tuned wordplay, and Joe Diffie’s charming delivery. In lesser hands, such a song — chockfull of double-entendre — could come off as creepy, but Diffie sang it with a grin, well aware of the absurdity in lines like “I got an 8-foot bed that never has to be made.” It became his signature song, spending four consecutive weeks at Number One, a heavy load no matter what you drive. J.H.
With just a can of spray paint in an iconic color and a water-tower love note — “Billy Bob loves Charlene!” — Joe Diffie provided a snapshot of small-town courtship in “John Deere Green.” A Top Five hit off his Honky Tonk Attitude LP, the imagery-rich song mowed the way for Jason Aldean’s monster hit “Big Green Tractor” 16 years later (Aldean acknowledged the Nineties star’s influence with a shout-out in the 2012 single “1994”). A thumping beat, a chunky guitar line, and that irresistible chorus all made “John Deere Green” as colorful as its title, even if the “whole town said he shoulda used red.” Here’s hoping Billy Bob and Charlene are still at it. J.H.
Diffie co-wrote this turbo-charged ode to the line-dancing clubs that popped up all over the nation in the wake of early Nineties Garth-mania and Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie.” Just look at the video for examples of the “tight pants, line dance, Stetson hats and Cowboy boots” Diffie mentions in the chorus. “Honky Tonk Attitude” hit the Top Five in 1993 and is a prime example of the way his voice was seemingly built to jump out of a car speaker cranking up country radio. H.K.
This may be Diffie’s finest moment. Listen to him wring every last bit of emotion out of the poetic lyrics of the song, about a guy hitting rock bottom and commiserating over it all at the bar with an old man he finds to be a “kindred fool.” Just when they’re about to completely drown in their sorrows, the elder lifts his glass and gives a toast to all those who never had it as good as some do now. His words speak of compassion for the homeless and mentally ill. There’s a remembrance of soldiers who died in pointless wars, and a final toast to “those who wait forever for ships that don’t come in.” Written by Paul Nelson, Julian Williams, and Dave Gibson, “Ships That Don’t Come In” deserves to be in the same conversation as Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” and Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain” as the best of Nineties story songs. H.K.
One of the few outright love songs released as a single during Diffie’s heyday, 1994’s “So Help Me Girl” puts a different twist on the rush of waking up in bed with a new love for the first time. With lines like “You could have kissed me like this wasn’t gonna last” and “You could have stopped short of every dream I’ve ever had,” the lyrics serve as a warning that this guy is falling hard for the one laying beside him. You also get the sense that he has been hurt in relationships before — and Diffie’s signature twang communicates just how high the stakes are for him to gamble at love again. H.K.
Weekend at Bernie’s got the country-music treatment in this death-be-damned sing-along. In hindsight, sure, it hits a little too close for comfort, but it’s hard not to smile when Diffie belts out that defiant chorus. Opening with a bait-and-switch elegiac vibe, the track — a Top 3 hit for the Oklahoman — roars to life with barroom piano and Diffie imploring his friends to fulfill one last request: lean him up against the ol’ Wurlitzer. In turn, he promises, “I’ll be the life of the party even when I’m dead and gone.” Play this one loud. J.H.
Admittedly, it’s hard to get past this track’s irresistibly bouncy two-step beat and Diffie’s masterful vocal performance, but when you dig deeper, you’ll find clever lyrics about America’s love affair with easy money. The scene plays out at Diablo Motors with Diffie falling prey to a fast-talking used car salesman, who coerces him into buying a rundown car that he can’t afford. This one became Diffie’s second chart-topper in 1991 and established him as a vocal stylist in the line of George Jones and Vern Gosdin. H.K.
Diffie teamed up with Mary Chapin Carpenter for this stunner of a collaboration. While not the most natural duet partners, the singers’ different backgrounds and vocal styles make this all-but-forgotten track a fascinating study in the attraction of opposites. With her measured delivery and breathy vocal tone, Carpenter begins the song playing her part as the reserved Ivy League-educated folkie before Diffie barrels in with his commanding, twangy vocals. It’s a jarring transition, but once they hit the chorus, the harmonies are both beautiful and distinctive. It’s a gorgeous love song that sits at the center of Carpenter’s 1992 masterpiece Come On Come On — and also scored its stars a Grammy nomination. H.K.
Diffie released two novelty tunes between 1994 and ’95, this enjoyable sci-fi goof and the breezy “Bigger Than the Beatles,” respectively. Both hit Number One, but “Third Rock From the Sun” had more gravity, thanks to its tale about a cheating husband, car-stealing teens, and a UFO sighting. Musically, it’s like an intergalactic version of Garth Brooks’ “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up),” released the year prior — but it’s the way that Diffie sings the line “things come undone” that’s really out of this world. J.H.