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Diffie finds life isn't always so funny

By Jeffrey B. Remz, March 1996

Page 2...

"I enjoy writing," he said. "It's kind of like a diet. It's just kind of hard to keep on it."

He might find it hard to keep writing as well because he'll be back on the road for steady touring in April with Neal McCoy, Toby Keith and Rhett Akins. While he used to be a heavy duty touring machine, Diffie cut back to about 110 dates.

And that suits him just fine. "I've got a real luxury," he said, referring to his past success. Diffie said he enjoyed less touring because he felt "fresher, and I feel I do a better show. Your voice gets tired, and you can't hit high notes, and you get frustrated and everybody gets sick of each of other."

While he may be less busy on the road, Diffie has been quite busy releasing albums, something he regretted. "Mr Christmas," a holiday album, came out in September followed by "Life's So Funny" only three months later.

"It was much debated," Diffie said of the two-disc approach. "We wondered whether it would work, whether it would kill sales of the other album. We went ahead and decided just to try it. I'm not thrilled with our record sales of 'Life's.' It's doing okay, but not having the impact it ought to. Coming off 'Third Rock' and a number one single, it kind of got lost in the shuffle for lack of a better term."

"I think 'Mr. Christmas' took away from the initial sales," he said. "I would have preferred in hindsight, waiting until about now to put 'Life's' out. One faction said, 'hey it's not going to hurt anything. With the momentum you got, they're going to go out and buy it.'""It's hard enough to sell a project at a time," he said. "It's not where we want it to be."

He said the final singles from "Third Rock" did not drive people to record stores to buy the album. The thinking was to get a new song out to the public. "It didn't work as smoothly as we had planned," Diffie said. "I wouldn't recommend it."

But Diffie also acknowledged he has not always known a hit when he heard it. In fact, "John Deere Green" and "Devil" probably would never have seen the light of a compact disc if given Diffie's druthers.

"It was really strange," he said of hearing a demo version of "Devil." "It was kind of lame and laid there. I didn't know it was a hit at all. You miss them once in awhile."

As for "John Deere Green," Diffie described the demo as "some of the wierdest you ever heard. They played it for me, and I said, 'Ew. I hate that.' My producer said, 'It's a hit. I promise you.' We did try it, and it came out."

Diffie had a good ear for "Jukebox." "I knew that was a hit the minute I heard it. Definitely. It was so cleverly written I guess."

Diffie's ear for music started as a young boy. His mother was a church singer, while his father was an amateur musician when he wasn't a teacher, coach, welder or lumberjack.

Along with his two sisters and mother, Diffie sang in church. He got into bluegrass at age 11, listening to Flatt & Scruggs and picking up influences from Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard from his father.

A few years later, Diffie alternated between playing in Blitz, a short-lived rock group ("We did one talent show, and we broke up") and gospel. His group, Genesis II, played in local churches.

A short stint at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. ended due to being "all in love." He got married, worked in the oilfield, eventually got divorced and went to Duncan, Okla. working in a foundry for about eight years.

Although he hadn't done music for several years, he soon joined Higher Purpose, a gospel group, touring churches on weekends. "We got into the complex of are we doing this for entertainment or to minister," he said. "We just decided to disband."

Diffie continued with bluegrass and bought a building where he set up a small recording studio. But he lost his regular job and had to filefor bankruptcy. "They came and took all that back," he said of a bank's confiscation of the building. "It was a real embarrassing downtime in my life. I couldn't afford that."

Once unemployment ran out, Diffie headed straight to Nashville in 1986 working at Gibson Guitars' shipping and receiving department.

"I wanted to be a singer, I thought," he said. "Then I fell in with good companions and started writing songs and got a writing deal out of that. That really helped me out a lot."

He eked out a living as a demo singer, getting $40 a pop. "I got so many (about five a day), I quit Gibson," he said.

His future producer, Slate, had a publishing company and knew of Diffie. Next thing, Diffie knew he was taken to Epic Records where he met with label bigwig Bob Montgomery. He couldn't sign Diffie due to the need to clean out the label's roster. About a year later, Diffie signed on the dotted line.

Diffie did not play live in Nashville. "I was so busy writing songs and doing demos," he said, a blessing in disguise. He did not have to endure label execs' need to "just keep looking. I was able to shine in the studio."

Diffie hit it big with his debut, "A Thousand Winding Roads," with hits including "Home," the first time ever a debut single reached number one, and "New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame)," one of four he had a hand in writing.

While not being egotistical, he said, "I just had this feeling that it would happen. I guess I had so many friends in the business already - producers, writers, musicians - the comments were 'you're the best singer out there.'"Diffie's career has never exactly suffered since his debut, scoring with a continuous string of hits.

But Diffie also is worried about current trends. As a now-established artist, Diffie said, "I think there's been an influx of too many artists, and it's confusing the public...I can't keep up with all of them. They all kind of sound alike. They all look alike. That's the down side of it. That's probably contributing to the levelling off factor. There's another guy who has a hat on who has another song about a truck.

"Trust me, I hold no grudges," he said. "I'm a pretty established artist now. I feel bad for new artists...(Labels) let their standards down in signing people. They're not as stringent." Diffie refused to name names ("they know who they are").

He acknowledged that all musicians suffer from a glut because if too many people are touring, it limits how many concerts the public will attend.

And while others may go for a slicked-up version of country, Diffie seems headed more towards his country roots. "To me, it's something that's in my soul...I'm part of it, and it's part of me. When I was a kid, I knew every song...I sang all the words. I drove everybody crazy."

And as he sings in "C-O-U-N-T-R-Y," from his latest disc, "That's the way I'm gonna be 'til the day I die."

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