Album Review: Joe Diffie – Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album

C.M. Wilcox | October 29th, 2010

Joe Diffie - HomecomingA debut hit that was an ode to the old home place. A voice that could soar up high just as easily as it could dip down into honeyed Whitley-like tones. That one long, anguished note toward the end of “Ships That Don’t Come In.” If we didn’t know Joe Diffie had some bluegrass in him, perhaps we should have guessed.

As a ’90s neotraditionalist, Diffie’s blessing and curse was that he had the vocal chops to sound like just about anyone. He was so versatile, in fact, that he managed to rack up a whole string of hits without ever creating much in the way of a recognizable body of work or identity for himself. Dubbed Joe Ditty, king of the one-off song you heard and thought was catchy but can’t remember the singer of, his albums were notoriously spotty affairs. By the turn of the decade, the hits had all but dried up.

Ten years of touring and a brief stint on Broken Bow Records later, he’s back with his first bluegrass album on Rounder. Homecoming is no vanity project, though. As its title hints, Diffie sang and toured regionally with the bluegrass group Special Edition for years before he ever became a country radio star.

When it came to putting this album together, Diffie (who co-produces with Luke Wooten) took the task seriously, building a core band of players around respected names like Aubrey Haynie, Bryan Sutton, Charlie Cushman, Mike Compton, and Rob Ickes; enlisting Rhonda Vincent, Alecia Nugent, Sonya Isaacs, Bradley Walker, Carl Jackson, and Harley Allen for backing vocals; adding the Grascals as guests on “Rainin’ On Her Rubber Dolly.” Anyone who’s ever glanced at a set of bluegrass liner notes knows this is going to be a great-sounding record.

The still-lingering question, though, especially for those of us who never had the pleasure of hearing Special Edition, is how well Diffie’s voice actually works in front of a bluegrass band. Like the good bluegrasser he is, Diffie knows that nothing will put all doubts to rest like proving his mettle on a Flatt & Scruggs classic right from the get-go–just what he does, finessing “Somehow Tonight” with warmth and precision to spare. While regretful “Free and Easy” and nostalgic album highlight “Route 5, Box 109″ keep Diffie in a familiar pocket, pairing his usual country vocals with lovely bluegrass arrangements, other tracks like “Tall Cornstalk” and the Grascals collaboration give him a full bluegrass workout. At every turn, he rises to the occasion.

Actually, it’s more than rising to the occasion. He sounds like a man unhinged, throwing himself into these songs so wholeheartedly that it’s actually kind of startling. This greatest of soundalikes sounds, finally, fully like himself.

We do get one late reminder that this is, after all, the same old Joe, susceptible to some of the same old song and sequencing troubles. He follows an ideal closing track, the pluperfect (and self-penned) murder ballad “Til Death,” with an unnecessary, predictably hyper-charged cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” missing an opportunity to end on one of the album’s strongest tracks.

That minor quibble aside, this is the strongest collection of material, and certainly the most impassioned batch of vocal performances, Diffie has yet recorded. Here’s hoping this Homecoming is the beginning of a long stay. Bluegrass suits him.

4.5 Stars

  1. Rick
    October 29, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Joe sang a few of these songs on Wednesday night’s Music City Roots show and they were quite enjoyable. Joe was very nervous at the start indicating that maybe the MCR show was one of the first times he was performing these songs live in concert. It wasn’t enough to interest me in this album, but I hope Joe shows up on The Opry to sing some of these songs.

  2. Fizz
    October 29, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    A bluegrass cover of “Hard To Handle” just sounds weird, but maybe some of the others are enough to make up for the idiotic “Pickup Man.”

  3. Jon
    October 29, 2010 at 3:47 pm
  4. Guy
    October 29, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Calling “Pickup Man” an “idiotic” song has to be the result of someone taking music and / or himself WAY to seriously …

  5. luckyoldsun
    October 29, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Everyone from Bing Crosby to Hank Williams to Sinatra to Cash to the Beatles has recorded at least a handful of songs as “dopey” as “Pickup Man.”

  6. Jon
    October 29, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    I have to say, I don’t really go along with the second paragraph at all; I certainly had no problem picking out Diffie from other singers, and neither did anyone else I know. If there was a general criticism, it was that he did an excessive number of novelty or semi-novelty tunes, not that he didn’t have a distinctive sound.

  7. Jon G.
    October 29, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Jon, I’ve actually read the same criticism on at least two other sites at various points, and my thoughts were exactly the same as yours.

  8. Jon G.
    October 29, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    This review was probably the first time I noticed it:,,20199859,00.html

  9. Jon G.
    October 29, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    And by ‘it,’ I mean the criticism that Diffie was an indistinct singer.

  10. luckyoldsun
    October 29, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    I am able to pick out Diffie’s voice, but I understand where the writer was coming from in that paragraph. Music stars develop personas by which the public identifies them–through their voices, lyrics, demeanors, attire, etc. In that era, Garth, Strait, McGraw, Black, Gill and Tritt all had distinct personas. Even among the lesser lights, Chesnutt was the honky-tonk lifer, Lawrence junior honky tonker, etc. I think Diffie was kind of opaque in that regard.

    I actually thought “Pickup Man” was a great song for him. It did more to let people in on his personality than any other song of his. The lyric “I met all my wives in traffic jams” was classic.

  11. luckyoldsun
    October 29, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Jon G.–
    Good link. That Alanna Nash review was extremely unfair to both Chesnutt and Diffie in my opinion, but she’s entitled to hers.

  12. Jon
    October 30, 2010 at 8:40 am

    That review’s also 20 years old, written very near the beginning of both artists’ national careers; I’d bet money that Alanna’s view of them was carved in stone from then on.

  13. Jon G.
    October 31, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Probably. Her opinion is one I have trouble wrapping my head around; I never had any problem picking Diffie out from the pack.

  14. Jon
    October 31, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Um, meant “wasn’t,” wasn’t carved in stone. Alanna’s one of the really good ones.

  15. Rick
    October 31, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Ever since Alanna Nash started contributing to magazines like High Fidelity and Stereo Review (now both long gone) back in the 1980′s, I’ve been a fan of her writing in both content and style. That gal has literary panache!

    Alanna has made a bit of a career for herself writing books about Elvis but also undertook the arduous task of writing one on the elusive Colonel Tom Parker. Here is a link to an interview about that process which to me is quite fascinating. Alanna self-financed the book and spent over $ 6,000 on the rights to print pictures alone! She admits that unless she ever sells the movie rights for decent money she will never recoup her out of pocket expenses! Now that’s what I call jounalistic determination.

  16. Barry Mazor
    October 31, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Alanna, to me , has been one of country’s best interviewers. She gets at things hardly anyone would, and she’s been doing it that well consistently for a long time. And yes, as Rick is pointing out, she’s willing to go out on a limb for her big projects.

  17. Jon G.
    October 31, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Back to Diffie, I maintain that his ’16 Biggest Hits’ is one of the best single-disc compilations I’ve ever heard, on par with ‘The Ultimate Ronnie Milsap,’ ‘Sam Cooke: Portrait of an Artist 1951-1964,’ and George Strait’s ’22 More Hits’ to name just a few others I’m partial to that come to mind. Alternatingly emotionally engaging and entertaining, it makes for a very consistent listening experience.
    In my humble and honest opinion, of course.

  18. Razor X
    October 31, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Diffie was one of the best male artists of the 90s. He had — and still has — a tremendous voice. He didn’t always record the greatest material, but songs like “Home”, “Ships That Don’t Come In” and “Is It Cold In Here” are pure magic. He should have been bigger than he was, but I suppose the competition was a lot stronger in those days.

  19. Jon
    October 31, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Yeah, yeah. He was great. Still is. In case you hadn’t noticed, the top of this page is occupied by a review of a brand new release of his (which BTW has some great material). I don’t get what the point of talking about him like he’s dead, or at least retired, is. He ain’t neither one.

  20. luckyoldsun
    October 31, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    If you took the pack of male country singers in the mid ’90s–George Strai, Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Tracy Lawrence, Tracy Byrd, Sammy Kershaw, Tim McGraw, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Aaron Tippin –and asked anyone to predict which ones of those would still be in the big leagues in 2010, do you think anyone would have come close to getting it right?

  21. Paul W Dennis
    October 31, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Good point LuckyOldSun – I would have guessed that George Strait would have faded long before now, that Vince Gill would have faded away by 2000 and that Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt and Clint Black would still be near the top of the charts today.

    I also would have expected that Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt and Kenny Chesney were marginal talents unlikely to remain popular for long, but that McGraw , Kershaw, Diffie, Lawrence, Keith and Tippin were likely to remain top drawer in 2010. Of course there is no accounting for the tastes of the general public given Chesney’s continuing stardom

  22. Jeremy Dylan
    November 1, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Mike Compton is everywhere these days! And deservedly so, he’s masterly. Joe Diffie, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Leon Russell, Jim Lauderdale, etc. have all been dragging him into the studio lately.

  23. bob
    November 15, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Diffie has a great voice, He’s one of my all time favorites, Like to hear him on the radio again
    It’s to bad the industry controls who gets played and who dosen’t, but thats the way it is, the ever changing cycle of arists.


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