january 2011

Back To Where He Once Belonged

By David McGee

Joe Diffie
Released: October 2010

When mainstream Nashville lost interest in Mark Chesnutt, he found some small labels that let him follow his muse, and he’s now on a three-album roll, having produced some of the finest music of his career over the past few years since his tenure with MCA ended. Nashville also lost interest in another of its finest singers of recent years, one Joe Diffie, and he’s turned up on Rounder, revisiting the music that brought him into the business in the first place. Diffie was so formidable a country artist (five chart topping singles between 1990 and 1995, and 13 Top 5 singles during that timeframe; his label, Columbia, once sent out promotional bumper stickers bearing the sentiment, “It’s Joe Diffie’s world, we just live in it.”) that the number of people who remember him breaking in with the bluegrass band Special Edition doubtless amount to handlful at this juncture. But break in as a bluegrass singer he did, and with Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album he has got back to where he once belonged.

‘Home,’ an early Joe Diffie classic—his first release, his first number one single, 1990

You’ll not hear, however, the keening, high lonesome sound of a Del McCoury here, or anything like Jamie Dailey’s plaintive tenor. But you will hear, say, on the bustling “Stormy Weather Once Again,” some of those robust bass swoops that tell you where Josh Turner got some of his thang. Which is to say, Joe Diffie has met bluegrass halfway on Homecoming and meshed his naturally muscular country voice with some classically styled bluegrass arrangements as played by some of the genre’s foremost practitioners—Bryan Sutton, consistently amazing on guitar; Aubrey Haynie, consistently amazing on fiddle; Rob Ickes, consistently amazing on dobro; Charlie Cushman, consistently amazing on banjo—and come up with a hybrid set of songs rich in emotional and musical content alike. Diffie lends some of his own songs to the cause, and fills out the tunestack with gems from stalwart writers such as Shawn Camp, Harley Allen, Larry Cordle, Earl Scruggs and, uh, Otis Redding. Making star turns as guest vocalists are the likes of Rhonda Vincent and Carl Jackson (both bring warm, loving harmonies to a touching reminiscence of the old home town, “Route 5 Box 109,” which even makes reference to Vincent’s tour sponsor, Martha White, which, granted, has a long, illustrious pre-Vincent association with bluegrass); Sonya Isaacs, adding a true and urgent high lonesome harmony to a bluegrass heartbreaker, “Lonesome And Dry As a Bone”—on which both Ickes and Cushman make potent instrumental statements to enhance the singer’s desperation—and adding a haunting second voice to the ominous ballad, “Fit For a King,” the tale of an alcoholic man of God’s trials and ultimate triumph in Heaven; and Alicia Nugent, pitching in with rambunctious harmonizing on “Tall Cornstalk,” Harley Allen’s witty exposition of the unusual tribulations of a cornstalk (the lyric “we thank the Lord for one small favor/that farmer started buying toilet paper” is the quintessential skewed world view peculiar to Harley Allen, and the song's high flying nature gives both Ickes and Cushman an opportunity to cut out on mighty fine speed-of-light solos), then coming back later to join Diffie in aching harmony on our man's own murder ballad, “Till Death,” concerning a fellow who resorts to double homicide when his gal leaves him for another gent, with his bloody motive residing in a twisted reading of a familiar matrimonial vow. As for that Otis Redding tune, it happens to be “Hard to Handle,” which vaulted the Black Crowes to rock stardom a few years back but turns into a bluegrass barnburner here, fueled by high-octane solos from Ickes, Cushman and a furiously bowing Haynie. When all the pieces fit as well as they do on Homecoming, and the singer is laying it on the line with the fervor and soul Diffie displays here, well, do the word “awesome” strike a responsive chord? It should, because it is. Always good to hear from you, Joe. Come back soon.

Joe Diffie’s Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024