Joe Diffie is tougher than nails – June 2004
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Joe Diffie is tougher than nails  Print

By Dan MacIntosh, June 2004

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Being on an independent label presents a whole new frontier for an artist that had previously been on a major label for his whole career up to that point.

"I was a little hesitant to venture off into independent land at first," he admits. "I did some informal research. Basically, what that (research) means is I asked several of my friends in radio about what their opinion was. Because I thought there was...and there was a stigma attached to it years ago. But I said, 'Look, is this a problem? Should I do this?' And they were like 'Hey, look, if it's a great song with great music, we'll play it.' And they've proven themselves to be true to that."

The Oklahoma native can also confidently point to other artists who have successfully walked this independent label path before him.

"Not to put anybody down, but now that you've had several mainstream, well known artists venture into 'that land,' I think it's made it a little more acceptable. You know, with Kenny Rogers, and David Ball had a big hit with 'Riding With Private Malone.' So there were several independent songs that did really well - some name brand, accepted artists who did that. I think it's kind of opened the doors in that regard."

Diffie loves radio, by the way. Maybe this is because he still remembers that bygone pre-internet, pre-MTV era when radio was king and offered one of the few connections to the music world. In fact, the new album includes a great ode to the old AM/FM dial, called "Nothin' But The Radio."

"When I went to get my first car, the first thing I did was turn on the radio to make sure it worked," recalls Diffie with a laugh. "I wouldn't have bought if it wasn't a good radio. And, of course, I remember spending tons of money on stereo systems and eight-tracks and all that stuff."

It's been said that when Ken Nelson produced those pivotal early Buck Owens recordings for Capital in the Sixties, he purposely emphasized the high end of the mixes over the low end, so that these records would sound particularly good on AM radio.

"I think I asked Buck about that one time," say Diffie. "He said he felt like it would project better, and it would come out of the speakers better. These songs were recorded extremely bright."

Diffie's an unabashed Owens fan. "Buck was a huge star. I think some of the Hee Haw (stuff he did) kind of diminished some of that a little bit, the aura you know. You know, one thing I really appreciate about him is the fact that he's such a big supporter of new artists. I've got two or three letters from him from early in my career. They were encouraging notes. He (also) sent me a guitar with a little plaque inscription on the pick guard. I really appreciated him doing that."

Diffie has similarly warm feelings toward his current duet partner and friend, George Jones. "George Jones is also good at that (giving support). You know, I never imagined in my life that I'd be going out to dinner with George Jones. We regularly go out to dinner with George and (his wife) Nancy. It's just a really cool thing, and I really appreciate them being so open about that."

Of course, there's always a chance that the musicians we love most, also turn out to be unkind people.

"Thank goodness, wouldn't it be a disappointment to meet one of your heroes and him be a turd?" Not so with Jones, though. "George is just funny. He's just George, and he's just country. He's great, and I love him to death."

If you think about it, Diffie covers nearly every stereotypical country subject on this album - from songs about daddy, to a gospel tune, to a train song ("Movin' Train"). Heck, there's even a - God forbid - drinking song called "The More You Drink, The Better I Look."

"We had more fun writing that song and goofing around with it," Diffie remembers. "It (the title) was just a flippant comment on my part, I think. And my co-writer, Shawn Camp, said, 'Man, we oughta write that. That's funny.' And I was, 'Yeah, let's write it.' I'm hoping it's going to be a single because to me it's really funny."

Diffie is a prolific songwriter, yet he rarely writes any of his songs all by himself. "I've tried to write by myself, and I can't do it. I prefer writing with co-writers. I don't know why. I guess it's easier. Sometimes you just get stuck when you write by yourself. (But) with a co-writer, you can just mouth it off and get a whole different angle on something."

"One of the songs on there (the latest album) called 'Am I,' was written by Billy Yates and myself. And Billy had this song pretty close to being completed. I loved it, and changed a couple of things in it, and there you have it."

Although Diffie initially got his foot in the door when folks like Holly Dunn ("There Goes My Heart Again") recorded his songs, he nevertheless thinks of himself as a singer first and a songwriter second.

"I was originally writing songs with the idea that I would hopefully get my own record deal at some point. So I'd have the songs. But it's a great way to network, and it's a great way to meet people."

Once you realize you have a talent - such as writing - and even if it's not your favorite, number one artistic pursuit, you never want to give it up.

"Songwriting is real cathartic," Diffie explains. "It's almost like therapy sometimes. It's fun. I like the camaraderie. I think that's another reason I like to write with co-writers."

Diffie must be getting his fill of camaraderie these days, since he's sure collaborated a whole bunch of late. But having a new child is certainly his best possible collaborative effort. And if nothing else, it reveals the tender heart beating deep inside this "Tougher Than Nails" guy.

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