"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, its got a lifetimes worth of bluegrass roots and connections to back it up. In fact, the most surprising thing about the translation of that thought into realityand given the way that the country music industry has kept bluegrass at arms length, its not very surprising at allis that its taken this long.
The simple truth is that while this is Joes first bluegrass release, its not the first bluegrass release on which hes 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 groupyet its also true, and not insignificant, that he was absorbing country and honky-tonk influences at the same time. "I didnt 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 hed already made, an Arkansas fiddler by the name of Shawn Camp, and he visited others, too, in Memphisan 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 inspectormaking yet another bluegrass friend along the way in fellow Gibson employee Danny Roberts, then playing with the New Traditionbut it was clear he was destined for other things.
The subsequent arc of Diffies career can be followed in any number of sources, from internet articles and fan sites to research staples like the Country Music Foundations Encyclopedia Of Country Music, so theres 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 Associations annual awards show in 1993 and 1999 (the latter time in a notable appearance with the Lonesome River Band and the Del McCoury Bands fiddler, Jason Carter), and he popped up on the legendary Ralph Stanleys 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 hed grown up on in the 70s and 80s, but the new stuff, too. Indeed, he says, "most of what I listen to is bluegrass."