Joe Diffie is tougher than nails

Dan MacIntosh, June 2004

Joe Diffie had good reason to postpone the originally scheduled interview. You see, his wife Theresa gave birth to their new baby daughter, Kylie Tarissa Diffie, on the date of the initial appointment.

Needless to say, Diffie was in a grand mood when we eventually spoke, even though he was in the middle of slugging his way through a day's worth of back-to-back interviews, rather than bonding with his newborn daughter.

But it was the birth of a completely different kind - the arrival of his bouncing new album called "Tougher Than Nails" - that prompted Diffie into playing interview-o-rama.

Even though there's a whopping 22- year span between Diffie's oldest son, Parker, and his brand new daughter, this latest family addition was by no means what you might term an "accident."

"At first, I thought I was finished having children," Diffie admits. "But then my wife's maternal clock got to ticking, and I said, 'Hey, what the heck.'"

Coincidently, the new "Tougher Than Nails" album has a lot of fatherhood moments contained within it. One such parentally centric track is called "Daddy's Home." It's a song that celebrates that celebratory moment every weekday when dads finally get home from work.

The title track - although it is obviously overtly spiritual, as it talks about the nails Christ took on the cross - also speaks to Diffie about what it means to be a good father.

Once again, though, such parenting-friendly songs were never intentional on the artist's part. "When I wrote these songs, it was before we knew she (Theresa) was pregnant," Diffie shares.

"Oddly enough, I was drawn initially more to the father-son aspect of the song ("Tougher Than Nails")," Diffie explains. "That's what kind of grabbed my attention. I was looking for a story type song because I haven't had many of those in the past. So that (song) seemed like a really good vehicle for that. Obviously, the religious aspect of it came up, and we talked about it and discussed it and everything. One of the things I liked about it, was after hearing so much bad news, it's nice to hear some decent news for a while, which the song kind of conveys. (It presents) a good, positive kind of a life lesson thing."

In stark contrast to this Christ-centered/family-centered track, Diffie's new album also includes a duet with George Jones on "What Would Waylon Do?," which ponders how Waylon Jennings might react to various situations.

"One of the musicians commented, 'We've gone from 'What Would Jesus Do?' to "What Would Waylon Do?,'" says Diffie with a chuckle.

Sadly, Diffie had few chances to personally witness what Waylon might have done first hand.

"I did spend a really cool night when we were doing the Opry," he recalls. "We were in Porter Wagoner's dressing room, and me and Waylon and Porter and Travis Tritt - and I think Steve Wariner was there - we did a little guitar pull on the Opry that night. It was pretty special. I just kind of sat beside him (Waylon) and kept my mouth shut. I listened to all the stories he was telling; he was an enthralling storyteller. It was pretty cool. He told 'inside the industry' stories about people he knew and worked with and what not."

One imagines that more than a little bitterness was expressed through these personal remembrances. Waylon wasn't called a music outlaw for nothing; he certainly had his philosophical differences with the Nashville industry 'powers that be' during his lifetime.

"I think he was pretty vocal about it near the end of his life and career," Diffie speculates. "I think anybody who is known - or is a legend or that kind of thing - I think they always have the tendency to do it their own way, and Waylon was definitely one of those kinds of people."

"'What Would Waylon Do" was actually written by Wynn Varble and Leslie Satcher."

"They said they had attended a Waylon show somewhere. There was some fracas when the promoter came in and decided he wanted Waylon to do an extra show or something, and wasn't going to pay him or something. They (Varble and Satcher) just happened to be privy (to what was going on), sitting backstage when Waylon packed all his stuff up and left."

Jennings and his fellow Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash) were/are truly larger than life figures. "The first time I met Johnny, I was totally intimidated," Diffie recalls with some embarrassment. "I couldn't even talk. I felt like such a dummy. The only thing I could say was, "Um, my dad's a big fan of yours." And he was, like, 'Tell your dad I said thanks.'"

"Tougher Than Nails" is being released by the independent Broken Bow and arrives after Diffie's full decade with Sony where he had hits like "Pickup Man," "Third Rock from the Sun," "Bigger Than the Beatles" and "Home."

"I had a great relationship with Sony," says Diffie, 45. "I still see a lot of the people occasionally that I worked with at Sony. They just came to me and said, 'Look, honestly, we don't know what to do. We feel like we've done all that we can do with your career. Let's just part ways, and end as friends.' And that's just kind of how it happened. There was no animosity, whatsoever."

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.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •