’90s country singer Joe Diffie dies of coronavirus complications

The performer of hits including “Third Rock from the Sun” was 61.

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Joe Diffie arrives at the 12th annual ACM Honors in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2018.

Al Wagner/Invision/AP

Joe Diffie, a Grammy Award-winning country music hitmaker, died Sunday from coronavirus complications. He was 61.

A representative for Diffie confirmed his death in a news release.

The singer confirmed Friday that he tested positive for the virus and asked for privacy as he received treatment.

”We want to remind the public and all my fans to be vigilant, cautious and careful during this pandemic,” Diffie said in his statement last week. Earlier this month, he postponed a concert in Georgia, citing coronavirus concerns.

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 radio host 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 top 10 country 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 hits, including the chart-topping “Third Rock” title track and ode to rock stardom “Bigger Than The Beatles.”

As Diffie told Rolling Stone in 2019, the key was “finding songs I really liked and that I related to. Really, it’s not any more complicated than that.”

Still, he 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.

In 1998, Diffie earned a Grammy Award for his work on “Same Old Train,” an all-star collaboration led by Marty Stuart. A project that paid tribute to songwriting tradition, “Train” featured Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Allison Krauss and many others.

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; in the 2019 song “Raised on Country,” Chris Young sang that he “got my honky tonk attitude from Joe Diffie.” 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.

Earlier in the year, Diffie played the Opry to celebrate 25 years of membership, a night celebrated with songs and a slice of anniversary cake. Ricky Skaggs, Michael Ray and Vince Gill joined Diffie at the January 2019 show.

”Joe, thank you for all of the music and light you’ve given us,” the Opry shared Sunday. ”Thank you for letting us be part of your dream.”

As news broke of Diffie’s death 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.”

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