“I always had in mind to do a bluegrass album someday,” says Joe Diffie. “It was something I wanted from the first day that I got my country deal.” And while he might not be the first to say that, it not only has the ring of truth when you hear it straight from the man himself, it’s got a lifetime’s worth of bluegrass roots and connections to back it up. In fact, the most surprising thing about the translation of that thought into reality—and given the way that the country music industry has kept bluegrass at arms length, it’s not very surprising at all—is that it’s taken this long.
The simple truth is that while this is Joe’s first bluegrass release, it’s not the first bluegrass release on which he’s appeared; that distinction belongs to a 25 year old album by The Special Edition, released when he was already immersed in the bluegrass scene of his native Oklahoma and environs. “My dad was a big bluegrass fan,” he notes, and Joe had followed something of a traditional path when he went into the music after first singing in a gospel group—yet it’s also true, and not insignificant, that he was absorbing country and honky-tonk influences at the same time. “I didn’t see much difference between country and bluegrass,” he says, echoing a sentiment that finds its justification in the history of heroes like Flatt & Scruggs, along with more contemporary peers like Keith Whitley. And like them and plenty of others, including Special Edition bandmate Billy Joe Foster, he decided that where he belonged was Nashville.
On his way to Music City, he stopped in to visit one young bluegrass friend he’d already made, an Arkansas fiddler by the name of Shawn Camp, and he visited others, too, in Memphis—an occasion still remembered by the SteelDrivers’ banjo man, Richard Bailey. And naturally enough, when he finally landed in Nashville, Joe took to hanging out at the bluegrass Mecca, The world famous Station Inn; there he ran into still another bluegrass buddy, the late Charlie Derrington, who gave him a job at Gibson Guitars. He began in the shipping department and moved up to the role of inspector—making yet another bluegrass friend along the way in fellow Gibson employee Danny Roberts, then playing with the New Tradition—but it was clear he was destined for other things.
The subsequent arc of Diffie’s career can be followed in any number of sources, from internet articles and fan sites to research staples like the Country Music Foundation’s Encyclopedia Of Country Music, so there’s no need to retrace it here. But even as he was racking up Top 10 hits as quickly as he could turn them out, Joe kept up his bluegrass connections, and not always in the most obvious ways. He co-hosted and performed on the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual awards show in 1993 and 1999 (the latter time in a notable appearance with the Lonesome River Band and the Del McCoury Band’s fiddler, Jason Carter), and he popped up on the legendary Ralph Stanley’s award-winning, all-star production, Clinch Mountain Country, with a gripping rendition of “Another Night,” but he also turned over a strong co-write of his, “I Got A Feeling,” to bluegrass singer David Parmley years before he got around to recording it himself. And he kept listening, not just to the classics and contemporary releases he’d grown up on in the 70s and 80s, but the new stuff, too. Indeed, he says, “most of what I listen to is bluegrass.”
So when Joe looked up from finishing a self-produced, years-in-the-making set of remakes of his hits a couple of years ago and saw Rounder Records on the other side of the table, the way was cleared for the project to finally get under way—and in fact, he remembers that it was suggested by Rounder’s Ken Irwin, whose memory for talented bluegrass artists is long indeed. So while it might not be accurate to call this release “long-awaited,” it’s surely right to say that it’s been a long time in the making, and perhaps all the better for it.
Indeed, one of the most striking things about this release is the way that it comfortably fits beside the very best of today’s bluegrass. Even when Diffie tackles a song he wrote back in those Special Edition days, there’s not a trace of nostalgia, nor a self-conscious reach for a retro feeling—yet neither is it in a newgrass, nor quite a country-grass mold, either. This music is, quite simply, state-of-the-art bluegrass, shaped by in-depth knowledge, played by some of the finest talents available, and sung by an artist who’s already widely admired—not only in the country world, but among bluegrassers, too—as a consummate vocalist.
“I knew Luke Wooten a little bit already,” Diffie says of his co-producer for the project. “And he had been working with the SteelDrivers, and I loved the way that they sounded. He has a real love for bluegrass, and he kind of multi-tasked on this—he got the musicians set up and got the studio time booked. Luke and I were very simpatico when it came to choosing the musicians, choosing the material—we really worked well together.” And indeed, though Wooten had plenty of input, Diffie’s approach was a seriously hands-on one. “I knew most of the musicians already,” he recalls, “like Aubrey Haynie, who had played on some of my country albums, and Bryan Sutton, who we kind of leaned on in putting the group together. Luke brought some songs in, but so did I—in fact, I’d already had ‘Tall Cornstalk’ on hold once before for a country project—and I wrote a couple, too. Some were new, but ‘Tennessee Tea,’ that’s one that was written years ago, before I ever moved to Nashville. It never seemed appropriate for a country record, but we loved playing it live with Special Edition—Billy Joe would always introduce it by saying ‘it doesn’t mean anything about anything, but we love to do it’—so it was natural to put it on this project and just burn it up.”
Old friends like Camp turn up elsewhere in the songwriting credits, while Harley Allen pulls double duty as both a writer and harmony singer—“That was a no-brainer,” Diffie laughs, “he’s the kind of singer where you love to listen to his demos and steal every lick you can”—and another Diffie favorite, Larry Cordle, contributed the gripping “I Know How It Feels.” “That’s one I resang a couple of times,” Joe confesses, “because I knew I just had to put the same angst into singing it that he did.”
Still, there’s no doubt that the completed project is Diffie’s from start to finish, as his masterful voice dominates every selection, no matter how brilliant the players or powerful the harmony singers—and there’s no doubt that bluegrass is an indelible part of his musical make-up. Most of all, though, Joe’s just glad to have finally gotten this one out. “It’s like the stars all finally aligned,” he says with a chuckle—and for those who enjoy hearing an artist at the top of his game tackle the most demanding kind of music under the country umbrella, those stars must surely be counted as lucky ones.