Of all the distinctive male voices that emerged in country music during the 1990s, none other was quite as melodic, mobile and easy to listen to as Joe Diffie's.
Whether it was the irresistible looniness of "Third Rock From the Sun" or the numb despair of "A Night to Remember," Diffie always left a piece of his heart in everything he recorded. And it paid off. Two of his albums -- Honky Tonk Attitude and Third Rock From the Sun -- sold platinum, while two others -- Regular Joe and Life's So Funny -- scored gold. In 2001, he departed Sony Music, his record label for 11 years, and pretty much disappeared from the radio.
But now Diffie's back -- and with one of the best albums he's ever made, the Broken Bow Records release, Tougher Than Nails. The first single and title cut from the album -- a story celebrating the "toughness" of Jesus -- has already risen into Billboard's Top 20. Sales, though, have been disappointing -- only 14,000 to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Diffie co-produced the project with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.
"To me, this album is pretty reminiscent of my first one, [A Thousand Winding Roads]" Diffie tells CMT.com during a phone call as his bus speeds across Illinois toward another show. "That's kind of what we were going for -- a back-to-basics thing, I guess, would be the best way to describe it. It's pretty country." That first album yielded "Home," his first single and first No. 1, plus "If the Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets)," "If You Want Me To" and "New Way (To Light Up an Old Flame)."
Tougher Than Nails twinkles with a few raucous, good-time tunes, including the barroom masterpiece, "The More You Drink, the Better I Look," in which the resident Lothario craftily sips on sweet tea while waiting patiently for a girl to drink away her powers of discrimination. Diffie co-wrote the ditty with Shawn Camp. "We had a blast," he reports. "We were trying to write a ballad, and we had this other title. We co-stared for about two hours. Finally, one of us [came up with this] title, and we said, 'That's what we ought to write.'"
Then there's the mock-contemplative "What Would Waylon Do?" -- Diffie's rave-up duet with George Jones.
"That was a song Tracy Lawrence found," says the singer. "We were thinking about doing it with the Rockin' Roadhouse tour -- me and [Mark] Chesnutt and Tracy. It turned out we had some red tape and couldn't do it. So I remembered it when we were looking for songs for this album." Brimming with road-weary sarcasm, it's probably the least mawkish, most affectionate tribute to Jennings yet recorded.
The album tilts, however, toward serious fare with songs like the regret-riddled "If I Could Only Bring You Back," the morose "Good News, Bad News" and "Something I Do for Me," the private musings of a dutiful but tired man. Diffie co-wrote "Something" with Harley Allen. "To me," he says, "it sounds like something Keith Whitley might have done." Diffie's songwriting talents were largely eclipsed by his chart successes during the Sony years, but the new album contains five of his songs. He says he recorded seven of his own for the project, but two failed to make the final cut.
Looking back on it, Diffie says the transition from a major label to a small independent one was fairly smooth: "The fortunate thing was that I had the Broken Bow deal almost before I left [Sony] -- or shortly thereafter. I didn't look around anywhere else. I didn't really have much time to think about [the switch], to tell the truth."
Even so, the new album was a long time coming. "First of all, " Diffie explains, "[there was] just the transition of trying to get all the contracts done and signed. That takes forever. Then we decided to do an album [and] had to look for songs. And I was writing songs. Plus, I was on the Rockin' Roadhouse tour with [Mark] Chesnutt and Tracy Lawrence. That occupied a bunch of time. So it was just a big slow wheel." He says the three-artist tour, which began in 2002, was "awesome" and adds, "in fact, we've threatened to revisit it in a couple of years."
Diffie doesn't generally "road test" his songs with live audiences before he records them. "It takes quite a bit of effort to get everybody to learn them and all that good stuff," he observes. "I usually just go on gut instinct on things I like." Even after an album comes out, he works in the new material sparingly. To date, he's included only "Tougher Than Nails" and the nostalgic "Nothing But the Radio" in his concerts. "I've found over the years," he says, "that it's very difficult to break in more than one or two new songs per show. People's attention starts to wander. You know, 'We want to hear "John Deere Green"!'"
With "Tougher Than Nails" still ascending, Diffie and his label continue to discuss which song should follow. "Well, we've got it narrowed down to about eight," he jokes. "We're looking at, maybe, 'The More You Drink' as a possibility. And we're looking at 'Nothing But the Radio.' But Gary Allan just came out with 'Nothing On But the Radio,' and we don't know if we want to get into that confusion or not. One of my favorite songs on there is 'Good News, Bad News.' The owner of the company's favorite is 'If I Could Only Bring You Back.' So there's lots of possibilities."