By Alan Sculley
One could say that when it came to his career, Joe Diffie quit joking around with his latest CD, "A Night To Remember." It's a statement that applies, first of all, to his music itself. In recent years, Diffie had enjoyed chart success with a string of light-hearted novelty-type tunes, such as "Honky Tonk Attitude," "John Deere Green," "Third Rock From the Sun," and "Bigger than The Beatles." He became well enough known for such material that he gained the nickname Joe Dittie.
But lately, the string of chart-topping hits has dried up and Diffie's record sales had stalled. Diffie was getting indications that radio was ready for a new direction.
"With me there seems to be some sort of resisting force that all of a sudden for some reason decided they weren't going to play songs of mine that were funny songs, and I was getting a lot of comments from radio people to my radio people saying 'Joe's got a great voice. We want to hear him sing songs that aren't ditties and stuff,'" Diffie said. "I got a lot of that kind of information fed back to me."
On a broader level, Diffie got more serious about his career--and his lifestyle--prior to making "A Night To Remember," and made several significant changes.
He decided to begin managing his own career and he committed himself to a more healthy lifestyle by quitting smoking and adopting an exercise routine that has seen him shed some 40 pounds. He also switched producers, bringing in Don Cook and Lonnie Wilson to work on "A Night To Remember."
All three decisions had specific benefits for Diffie.
In taking over his own management, Diffie feels he has improved his partnership with his record label, Epic, and others involved in his career--a situation he hopes will pay off with better record promotion and more sales.
"I just felt like it was time," Diffie said of managing his career. "I just wanted a fresh everything, and it just seemed kind of crazy to me to pay out huge sums of money to somebody to do something I was perfectly capable of doing with a little more effort. So that was one of the main reasons, obviously. The other was I just wanted to be more involved in my career. I just felt like I was out of touch with folks, the folks at my label. I'd go over there and it was like I was the stepchild or something, almost. I don't know how to explain that, I mean, they were all nice enough. I could just feel this little wall there.
"So it's been nice to be the one that they call and talk to and get a direct answer from me and I get direct answers from them and it just, it's a real connected kind of feeling."
Putting aside cigarettes and following a regular exercise routine that includes daily time on a stationary bike or treadmill had a direct effect on Diffie's ability to perform on stage and in the studio.
"I guess I was in denial that it was affecting me, that the smoking was affecting me," he said. "Then when I quit, all of a sudden I'm able to do songs in my set list I had to drop out before because they had notes I couldn't handle night after night. So what a thrill it's been. I have a lot more stamina and I've got a lot more high end range back that I started to lose a little bit."
As for the switch in producers, Diffie admits that Cook's track record was a factor in his decision.
"Well Don Cook, of course, has been so successful with Brooks and Dunn, Alabama and a bunch of other people. And he just, he's a real good song person," Diffie said, praising Cook's ability to recognize material that was ideally suited to the singer.
"I wanted Don mainly because of his reputation and his success. And the other reason, with Lonnie, Lonnie and I are dear friends. He's played drums on all my records and we've written a bunch of songs together and done many, many demos, spent hours and hours singing and messing around at his home studio. He's just a real dear friend of mine so we just ended up, the other side of that story is Don had been wanting Lonnie to become involved in production. Lonnie had played on most of the stuff he produced, so it was just a good opportunity all the way around."
It's a bit early to know if the changes will put Diffie's career back on it's early trajectory--Diffie's first two CDs, A Thousand Winding Roads (1990) and Regular Joe (1992) spawned six straight number one hits (including the heartfelt ballads "Home" and "Ships That Don't Come In"). But the Duncan, Oklahoma native's album sales and radio play have slowed since then.
On a musical level, though, the verdict is in. Diffie's efforts have produced one of the most musically satisfying albums of his career. "A Night To Remember" offers an engaging mix of mid-tempo and ballad material (such as the title track and "Better Off Gone") and melodic rockers such as "You Can't Go Home" and "It's Always Something."
Throughout the CD, the material leans toward traditional sounds, with ballads like "Don't Our Love Look Natural" and "I'm The Only Thing I'll Hold Against You" being particularly old school in their approach.
Every song on "A Night To Remember" centers on romance in some respect--and for the most part, the subject matter rises above the cliches that often inhabit love songs.
The title song, for instance, starts out sounding like the story of a newly unattached man's declaration to live it up in the wake of his romantic freedom. Instead, as the full-bodied ballad unfolds, the character stays at home, pulls out photos of his ex-lover and spends the evening reliving the life he lost. Another lyrical gem is "Are We Even Yet," which offers a pointed look at the competition between a bickering couple.
Such subjects did not find their way onto the new CD by accident. In trying to decide what direction to take his music, Diffie had an eye on the kind of material he felt gave him the best opportunity to reach fans old and new.
"We had a myriad of song meetings where we tried to solve all the issues facing country radio and our listenership, who's listening to it and who's buying the records and who's playing the records and what demographics," Diffie said. "You get into all those kinds of discussions and the conclusion we came up with was the majority of people who are actually physically buying records are probably young females. So we tried to find songs that were dealing with stuff that interests that kind of demographic, while I'm trying to be true to me and myself.
"The number one factor was we wanted to find songs that dealt with love," Diffie, 40, revealed. "And even the songs that talked about a lost love situation, at least had the guy, or the character in the song, being remorseful that he messed up and he lost his love, or there was a light at the end of the tunnel. So that was kind of our driving force behind when we were selecting songs."
The romantic fare is a bit ironic for Diffie, who recently became engaged to Theresa Crump, a 30-year-old who was working as a secretary in Orlando, Florida, when she met Diffie. It will be the third marriage for Diffie, who has four children from his previous marriages.
"There was a golf tournament one day and a little impromptu kind of jam concert the night before at this little club in Orlando," said Diffie, explaining how he Crump. "She knew a bunch of folks, she's a big country fan, so she had gotten to know a lot of people at the radio station there was there and I just met her and started talking to her. The next thing I know we exchanged numbers and the next thing I know, here we are."
This positive turn in his romantic life, however, had nothing to do with the thematic direction Diffie's music took on A Night To Remember.
"I met Theresa after I pretty much had all the songs together and had begun recording it," Diffie said. "So that didn't really factor into this particular project, but I'm sure it will in the future."
Joe Diffie performs Wednesday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. For ticket info, call 546-3600.
From the February 10-16, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.