Joe Diffie’s death yesterday at the age of 61 marks the first time the Covid-19 virus has claimed a Nashville country music star. He had only announced he had contracted the virus two days earlier. Ironically, if Joe hadn’t become a country singer, he might have become a doctor.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his country music career included 37 singles that made the Billboard country music chart, five of them were #1 hits, starting with his 1990 debut single “Home.” I received a thoughtful thank-you letter from Joe on the first-year anniversary of that hit. An accomplished songwriter, he shared credits on several of his hits, many of the songs he recorded and on JoDee Messina’s 2005 #1 “My Give a Damn’s Busted.”

In the late 1990’s, Diffie took his health seriously. In the space of just one year, he quit smoking, lost weight and started working out. One reason may have been his longtime interest in medicine.

While he was in high school, he toyed with the idea of becoming a heart surgeon. After a football injury, Joe then thought about becoming a chiropractor. While country music would become his calling, Diffie always had an interest in being a doctor.

Joe would read medical journals for fun. An unusual pastime to say the least, friends and relatives would call on him for medical advice. He confirmed that for me when I asked him about it backstage before his concert appearance in the summer of 2013 at the Boot Hill Jamboree near Bothwell, Ont. It’s ironic that if he hadn’t followed his passion for music, he may well have become a doctor and been on the frontlines of those treating the afflicted during the current crisis.

(discussing Joe’s passion for medical journals)

That day at Boot Hill, Tim Hicks had performed earlier in the day. Tim’s current single, “No Truck Song,” is the latest to give props to Joe or one of his songs, referencing the Diffie hit “Pickup Man.” (Jason Aldean may have been among the first with his 2013 hit “1994.”) Backstage at Boot Hill, I offered to introduce Tim to Joe. Tim was a bit reticent at first but I persuaded him since Joe was at that moment taking part in a meet-and-greet with his fans. I don’t know if Tim noticed, but I did. Diffie’s tour bus had a personalized license plate.


(Tim Hicks with Joe Diffie and a novelty licence plate on Diffie’s tour bus)

Many members of the country music family have fond memories of Joe Diffie. Pam Tillis, who worked a lot of summer and fall fairs with him, described the feeling of hearing the news of his passing. She said, “It’s sort of like losing a classmate.” Restless Heart member Dave Innis noted, “Joe blended humor and music better than anybody.” And Darryl Worley said, “I am sick in my spirit.”

A member of the Grand Ole Opry since his 1993 induction (sadly, longtime Opry star Jan Howard also passed away on the weekend, on Saturday at the age of 91), Joe’s last charted single came in 2004. It peaked at #50 with the now-ironic title “If I Could Only Bring You Back.” It’s a sentiment many will feel with respect to Joe Diffie.

(Diffie performing on the Grand Ole Opry)

Condolences to his family, friends and many fans.