NEW YORK — Joe Diffie, who went from working in oil fields and foundries to becoming one of the most commercially successful country singers of the early and mid 1990s, died Sunday in Nashville. He was 61.
His death, from complications of the coronavirus, was announced by his publicist, Scott Adkins. Mr. Diffie had revealed last Friday that he was being treated for the condition.
At the dawn of the 1990s, country music was embarking upon a great, rollicking party period, and Mr. Diffie, with a touch of aw-shucks wryness to his performances and a robust head of blond hair that shot back from his head like wispy flames, was suited to the moment.
As a singer, he had a crisp, sentimental voice, which he deployed on ballads like “Is It Cold in Here” and “Home,” his debut single from 1990; it topped the Billboard country chart, the first of his five No. 1 country singles. He placed a dozen more songs in the country top 10.
But he was also given to a playful, plucky rowdiness, and that animated his biggest hits. His third and fourth albums, which leaned heavily in this direction — “Honky Tonk Attitude” (1993) and “Third Rock from the Sun” (1994) — both went platinum. Two of his other albums went gold.
“Pickup Man,” from 1994, was his most successful song, topping the Billboard country chart for four weeks. It was also the song that best took advantage of his various talents: On the one hand, it was a gently funny song about sexual attraction, but, on the other, it was also an emphatically boisterous statement of pride about boys and the trucks that boost their egos.
When he sang “Pickup Man,” he alternated between plain and direct singing, humorously dipping and bending his syllables for emphasis.
“You can set my truck on fire and roll it down a hill/and I still wouldn’t trade it for a Coupe de Ville,” he sang, adding, “I met all my wives in traffic jams/There’s just something women like about a pickup man.”
The title track from “Third Rock From the Sun,” which went to No. 1, was a lighthearted catalog of rural misadventure. His 1995 Christmas album included a honky-tonk anthem, “Leroy the Redneck Reindeer.”
On “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die)” — the song’s video had a strong dose of “Weekend at Bernie’s”-like high jinks — Mr. Diffie regarded death with an arched eyebrow and a shrug: “Just let my headstone be a neon sign/Just let it burn in memory of all of my good times.”
Joe Logan Diffie was born Dec. 28, 1958, in Tulsa, Okla., to Joe and Flora Diffie. His father held various jobs and later drove a tour bus for country superstar Toby Keith; his mother was a schoolteacher and owned a flower shop. His family moved frequently before settling back in Oklahoma, where Mr. Diffie attended high school and college. As a child, he played with his aunt’s country band, and later as part of rock, gospel, and bluegrass outfits.
He began writing songs in the 1980s, and one of them, “Love on the Rocks,” was recorded by Hank Thompson. Soon, Mr. Diffie moved to Nashville, where he spent a few years writing songs and singing demos. After singing background on a Holly Dunn recording of one of his songs, he signed with Epic Records in 1990, and before long had his first No. 1 country hit.
Even in his performing era, Mr. Diffie continued writing songs, including ones recorded by Tim McGraw (“Memory Lane”) and Jo Dee Messina (“My Give a Damn’s Busted”). In 1998, Mr. Diffie won a Grammy for best country collaboration, with vocals for “Same Old Train,” a multistar collaboration.
He released albums throughout the 2000s and 2010s, and last year began hosting a radio show on KXBL, a country station in his native Tulsa.
Mr. Diffie leaves his wife, Tara Terpening Diffie; his mother; two sisters, Meg Prestidge and Monica Stiles; four sons, Parker Diffie, Travis Humes, Drew Diffie and Tyler Diffie; three daughters, Kara Diffie, Kylie Diffie and Reaux Terpening; and four grandchildren. Mr. Diffie’s first three marriages ended in divorce.
The brand of power country that he found much success with has lately been experiencing a re-embrace. Last year, Mr. Diffie, along with Trace Adkins, appeared on “Redneck Tendencies,” a song by the young country singer Hardy, and in 2013 he recorded a duet with Canadian country star Gord Bamford on “Country Junkie,” singing, “I don’t think they’ve got rehab for being a good ol’ boy.”
But the clearest mark of Mr. Diffie’s legacy came in 2013, when country superstar Jason Aldean released a single called “1994,” which emphatically invokes Mr. Diffie’s work and influence, name-checking several Joe Diffie songs in the lyrics.
In the video, one of the dancers wears a T-shirt that reads, “Teach Me How to Diffie,” a play on the “Teach Me How to Dougie” dance craze and a nod to how Mr. Diffie would awkwardly shimmy a bit onstage.
Throughout the video, there are clips of almost all the country stars of the 2010s — Luke Bryan, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Dierks Bentley, Florida Georgia Line, and more — singing to the camera, “Joe, Joe, Joe Diffie!”
That refrain became the title of Mr. Diffie’s final album, released in 2019.