Stories The Journey

Remembering the Pickup Man

Country music artist Joe Diffie sang the iconic songs that for many years have served as my mantras

Joe Logan Diffie was born on 29 December 1958 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the eldest child of a truck driver and a school teacher who had married straight out of high school and would stay together for the rest of their lives. On these merits alone, Joe had all the country credentials needed to be a success, long before he ever picked up a guitar.

Eventually Joe’s father, also named Joe (who was himself the son of a man named Joe), joined the Army to help pay college tuition for both himself and his wife, Flora. The two earned bachelor’s degrees at Oklahoma’s East Central University in Ada, a nowhere town equidistant from Oklahoma City and the adult bookstores of the Texas border. Having a father in the military meant young Joe and his two sisters moved around a lot in childhood, bouncing to Texas, Washington and Wisconsin before ultimately returning to the Sooner State in Joe’s junior year. He graduated from the same high school as his parents then, like them, got married soon afterward.

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Until he died last week I didn’t know anything about Joe Diffie’s life story, but it’s one that feels familiar. I was born in Texas; my first name is James, a moniker that, as in Joe’s case, I share with my father and grandfather. My mother was a teacher. Dad wanted to be a pastor but settled into the far less redemptive life of a television journalist, and my family bounced from town to town following his work: Austin, Dallas, Houston and eventually Bloomington, Minnesota. The similarities to Joe Diffie start to run out there, though. We never moved back to Texas. I wasn’t an accomplished high school athlete. My parents are not musical. I did ask my high school girlfriend to marry me but, thankfully, she was smart enough to turn me down.

“The beauty of country music is that it reflects the lives of its listeners”

Joe Diffie

Joe Diffie’s father had taught himself to play banjo and was a fan of both kinds of music: country and western. He and Flora sang at every opportunity that presented itself, an enthusiasm they passed to their children. Later in life, Joe remembered family car trips as being akin to mobile jam sessions – everyone singing and harmonizing. He learned to play guitar early on and performed in a number of bands in high school, including Higher Purpose, a gospel group, and Special Edition, a bluegrass group that Diffie later described as a “four-song garage band.”

Oklahoma in the late ’70s was clearly a different place that a teenage garage band would choose to play bluegrass. But perhaps Joe’s father had something to do with it; the elder Diffie was neither a fan of rock nor roll, once getting into an argument with Joe because of his desire to play Jerry Reed’s funk-influenced hit “Amos Moses.” Go on, Google “Amos Moses” and try to imagine life with someone who thought Jerry Reed was hardcore.

For Joe it was a life that imbued him with a sense of responsibility. A sense of responsibility that prompted him to drop out of college when his young wife got pregnant, abandoning ambitions of becoming a doctor, and going to work in the South Texas oil fields. It was “nasty, nasty work,” he would later recall and soon returned to Oklahoma to work as a machinist at an iron foundry. He hated the work there, too, but it at least gave him time to write a few songs and perform in a group with his sister and aunt. They set up a small recording studio to give themselves and other local acts a place to record demos to ship off to Nashville, and he taught himself to play bass and keyboards to better serve as a back-up musician. In 1986, Joe both lost his job and saw his marriage collapse. Perhaps spurred by these two events he decided to pack up and move to Nashville based solely on the fact he had heard that Randy Travis was considering recording one of his songs.

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“I had worked at this foundry for nine years,” Joe told a Nashville radio station last year. “Well, they shut the plant down and laid us all off. So, I was drawing unemployment there for a while, I was making $192 a week, right? So, I move to Nashville, I get a job [at the Gibson guitar warehouse]. I work all week at this place, busting my tail doing this deal – moving merchandise from one end of the warehouse to the other, sorting it all out… I got my first check, it was $176. Less than I was drawing on unemployment.

“I was like, ‘Aw, dude, I don’t know if I can do this or not.’ So, I did actually [think about giving up]. It was near Christmas time. I drove back home. My dad, he said: ‘Look, nobody said it was gonna be easy… but why don’t you go back and stick with it, give it a shot?’ And, you know, the best advice I ever got was: do something every day toward your music. I took that to heart.”

Ultimately Randy Travis never recorded Joe’s song, but, Joe said, “it worked out.”

I have no idea when I first heard “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets,” nor where. Most likely it was on CMT – I can remember the music video to the point I could probably still replicate the line dance performed by used car salesmen in the song’s bridge – and I was probably at my grandparents’ house. It was far safer to be caught watching Reba McEntire videos than those of Janet Jackson. Come to think of it, I suppose my grandfather also would have felt that Jerry Reed was a bit much.

The song’s tale of woe dealing with the allure and torment of debt is one that spoke to me. Still does. By the time I was old enough to drive I had bounced so many checks my bank account had been force-closed. If you had asked me before last week who sang it, though, I would have told you it was an old Ricky Skaggs tune. I suppose that’s understandable, and a bit serendipitous. Watch the video for Skaggs’ “Country Boy” and he’s sporting a mullet and mustache – an easy doppelgänger for Joe, or vice versa. Meanwhile, Joe’s father would at one point work as Ricky Skaggs’ tour bus driver. Mostly, though, this misremembered fact shows I don’t pay much attention to country music.

Or so I thought. Reading obituaries of Joe I was surprised to discover how many of his songs I know the words to. “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets,” “There Goes the Neighborhood,” “This is Your Brain,” “John Deere Green,” “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox,” “Bigger Than the Beatles,” “Ships That Don’t Come In,” “Third Rock From the Sun,” “Honky Tonk Attitude,” “C-O-U-N-T-R-Y,” “New Way to Light Up an Old Flame,” and, of course, “Pickup Man.”

“If the devil danced in empty pockets he’d have a ball in mine / With a nine-foot Grand, a 10-piece band and a 12-girl chorus line”

‘If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets’

In the summer of my high school junior year I managed to save up $400 in actual money and decided to spend it on a 1968 Ford F100 pickup truck that I saw advertised in the newspaper. Back then $400 went a little further than it does now but not by much when it comes to vehicles. A $400 car in 1993 was about as terrible as a $400 car is now. The truck had spent most of its life on a farm in Marshall, Minnesota, its red paint faded to a rusty pink. Though, in fact, most of the body was just rust.

I didn’t know how to drive manual transmission, so I convinced the woman I bought the truck from to drive it to my house. The next morning I had my dad show me how to operate the pedals before he left for work, then spent the day hopping and stalling and grinding and crawling through the neighborhood until I could finally change gears fluidly. That truck ended up teaching me a lot of things. Its high clearance and cavernous engine well meant there was plenty of room to crawl around and inspect things. I taught myself how to change oil, belts, bulbs and so on. When Amber Luckie dumped her boyfriend to go out with me I learned how to replace plugs and wires after he sabotaged the truck.

I named it Christine in homage to the devil-possessed car in Stephen King’s novel of the same name. She sounded like an old tank on start-up – pweee-BAWABAH-BAWABAH-BAWABAH – and when I drove at speeds above 35 mph I had to shout to have a conversation. The heater was largely ineffective and sounded like marbles being rattled in a coffee can. The thing stunk of gasoline, there was a hole in the passenger-side floorboard, and the suspension consisted mostly of the bench seat’s springs. The transmission had just four gears, the brakes were more ambition than reality, it had lap-only seatbelts, and the passenger-side door would occasionally fling open if I took a corner too hard. You needed to pull a choke to get the engine started and it struggled to exceed 60 mph. Needless to say, I fucking loved it.

Most importantly, girls loved it, too.

Howard Perdew was born and raised on a farm in Wayne County, Kentucky, deep in the middle of nowhere. For the most part, Wayne County’s only notable features are the things it borders: the wide and meandering Cumberland River to the north, Daniel Boone National Forest to the East, and the state of Tennessee to the south. Nashville is a roughly two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Wayne County’s largest town of Monticello, but close enough that Howard and his wife, Carol, were able to split their time in both places after finding a little success in Nashville as songwriters in the 1970s.

The songs they managed to pitch and sell weren’t huge. In 1978 one of Howard’s songs was recorded by the now forgotten Kenny Starr, whose major claim to fame was being a backup singer for Loretta Lynn. To make ends meet, Howard and Carol set up a jewelry store in Monticello and kept it going for more than a decade before a burglary cleaned them out.

“The thieves literally took, in about two and a half hours, what we had worked hard to accomplish in 11 years,” he told radio station WFLW.

With their business bust, the two decided to move to Nashville full time. Howard made enough money to set up his own publishing business and largely fell away from writing songs, only occasionally managing to put pen to paper. When he did, things seemed to go well. He wrote a number of songs for Joe Diffie, including “So Help Me Girl,” which Gary Barlow also recorded, and the now morbidly appropriate “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox if I Die.” Without question, however, his greatest success was “Pickup Man.”

“We had a good time with that one,” he said.

“I met all my wives in traffic jams / There’s just something women like about a pickup man”

‘Pickup Man’

Howard’s writing partner on “Pickup Man” was fellow Kentuckyian Kerry Kurt Phillips. Kerry Kurt was born in the northern part of Kentucky, in the town of Henderson – just across the Ohio River from Evansville, Indiana. In fact, it was in the Hoosier State, in the small Indiana-Illinois border town of Vincennes, that he graduated high school. Eventually he made his way to Nashville, where he became one of the city’s powerhouse songwriters. He’s written hits for George Jones, Tim McGraw, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tracy Byrd, Kenny Chesney and at least a dozen other country names over the past few decades.

“Pickup Man” was easily one of Kerry Kurt’s biggest successes, however. It spent five weeks at No. 1 in the country charts, and was used by Ford in its Super Bowl ads. The song was also used in a commercial for a restaurant chain about a decade later. All of which has put a lot of money in the pockets of Kerry Kurt, Howard, and Joe Diffie.

“Those four-cent royalty checks – they’re maxin’ out, man,” Joe joked in a radio interview.

Rolling Stone described “Pickup Man” as “inarguably one of the best truck songs in country music history,” which is saying something. There are probably more songs about trucks in the country music canon than love songs or heartbreak songs – if not simply because many of those songs are also about trucks. I’d go so far as to say “Pickup Man” is equally one of the most quintessential country songs since the genre’s lean toward popular appeal in the 1970s. It has all the elements: a pickup truck, the homecoming queen, working-man ethic, Americana, honky tonk piano, fiddle, entendre, in-on-the-joke wordplay, and a family-friendly lightness that means you could probably get away with singing it in front of your grandparents.

Anyone wanting to make his or her way in Nashville would do well to dissect the elements of this song: its simple time signature, its steady tempo, its lyrical structure that means listeners are able to sing along by the second verse. To paraphrase another Joe Diffie hit, “Pickup Man” is about as c-o-u-n-t-r-y as it gets. In Joe’s hands it goes to another level. He loops his voice from low growl to honky tonk yodel and pours Southern delivery into almost every phrase. Listen to the song and be amazed at how how he manages to turn “man” into a four-syllable word.

My F100 was a heat-and-keys truck. You got heat and keys, and that was about it. There was a radio: an old Philco that only picked up AM stations. So, in the times I was driving slow enough to actually hear the radio all I got to listen to was talk radio, sports, Christian broadcasts and, when I ventured south of the Twin Cities, a mysterious station that played nothing but polkas and Lawrence Welk. Now that I think of it, I guess there were plenty of people in Minnesota who also would have raised an eyebrow at Jerry Reed.

To keep myself entertained I memorized a wide variety of songs and sang them as I drove: Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” ZZ Top’s “Jesus Left Chicago,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” (including guitar solo), every song on Harry Connick Jr.’s “Blue Light, Red Light” album, and Joe Diffie’s “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets” and “Pickup Man.”

Except, apparently that’s not wholly true. Memory is a strange thing. Although I can distinctly recall singing “Pickup Man” at the top of my lungs in that truck, research I did for this article shows the song wasn’t released until October 1994, two months after I had crashed the F100 into a tree. 

“A bucket of rust or a brand new machine / Once around the block and you’ll see what I mean”

‘Pickup Man’

Certainly that wasn’t the first accident I’d had in the F100. I think I crashed that thing at least four times, including when I fishtailed during a blizzard into a very angry man’s brand new Ford Explorer, ripping the front end off his SUV. The only damage to my truck came in a large dent to the truck bed’s external panel. The angry SUV guy was such an intolerable asshole about everything that the police officer attending the accident decided to let me go without so much as a warning, even though just about any idiot in the world could have looked at the scene and figured out that I had been speeding. I guess there’s something cops also like about a pickup man.

I removed both lower panels – for symmetry – using a pair of hedge shears, painted the now-exposed undercarriage with black rust-stopping paint and carried on as normal until August, when, as I say, I ran the truck into a tree. I was driving off road and had decided it would be clever to try to jump a little ridge. Unfortunately, I didn’t take time to consider how long the truck would remain airborne, so when it came time to avoid the large cottonwood that was directly in front of me I discovered that the front wheels were not yet touching the ground. The truck’s front end took out a big chunk of the tree but Nature got its revenge by shunting the transmission to the point I couldn’t shift beyond second gear. Hindsight being what it is, I suspect now I could have fixed this but it seemed beyond my abilities at the time, so I sold the truck for scrap.

“Pickup Man” debuted in the country charts at No. 56 on 22 October 1994. Roughly that same week, with the help of First National Bank of Dad, I bought a 1991 GMC Sonoma pickup. It had four-wheel drive, a roll bar and fancy overhead lights. It also had a good stereo, with a cassette player, and I know I definitely sang along to Joe Diffie in the cab of that truck.

In the almost six years I owned the Sonoma – it eventually got stolen from outside my apartment in San Diego – I drove it all over the United States, from New York to California and all points in between. It wasn’t as wide as the F100 but its bench seat was still good for sleeping. I kept blankets behind the seat and would bed down in the cab on cross-country trips. Once, in a heated argument with the New York girlfriend she accused me of loving the truck more than her. I went quiet because I knew she was right.

Joe Diffie was never sexy. Admittedly that wasn’t a particularly big deal in country music in the ’90s. This was the era just before the poster-boy stars of the 2000s. Tim McGraw was an exception, and Aaron Tippin tried to be – with his weird mesh of the Freddie Mercury and Jake “The Snake” Roberts aesthetic – but generally the traditional conservatism of the country audience kept performers from being too outlandish. The days of Nudie suits had long gone. Album covers consisted of little more than the artists’ faces in soft focus, their hair styled in a manner that looked entirely affordable.

This is a look that was natural for Joe and one he maintained throughout life. He recorded some 13 studio albums in his career and almost every one of them features the man in question sporting a Supercuts haircut and clothes likely purchased at Walmart or Fleet Farm. He seemed impervious to the trappings of celebrity. In his late 30s by the time he found big-time success, he always looked very much like someone’s dad: slightly pudgy, awkward in his movements, a little confused by your jokes. He looked as if he would be more comfortable at his daughter’s softball game than in front of thousands of screaming fans.

Perhaps he would have been. One of the things that strikes you when listening to an interview of Joe Diffie is how incredibly not-famous he sounds. He talks about eating at Applebee’s with his mom, and the fact he likes to watch cooking shows. He was a normal guy, the sort of person you meet everywhere – even when he was rocking that incredible mullet.

“Sometimes it isn’t even the words that affect me. Sometimes it’s just the harmony or the sound. That’s the beauty of music: it makes you feel things”

Joe Diffie

“Pickup Man” is a song with multiple meanings, of course. It’s about pickup trucks, and about chasing girls, but it’s also about being comfortable with who you are – maybe even taking a little pride in it. “You can set my truck on fire and roll it down a hill / But I still wouldn’t trade it for a Coupe Deville.” Perhaps that was the appeal of Joe Diffie; he wasn’t a Cadillac of a man. He didn’t flaunt the fact he had performed some of the most iconic songs in country music.

After his death from coronavirus last week some obituaries described Joe as a traditionalist but that’s not really true. Certainly his music had traditional elements, aspects that would be familiar to a fan of Ernest Tubb, but he wasn’t a New Traditionalist like Reba McEntire, or George Strait. He wasn’t really Honky Tonk. Nor was he really a forebearer of the Bro Country of today, although he had seen a slight rise in popularity in recent years thanks to Jason Aldean chanting his name in the song “1994.”

Joe Diffie was simply an archetypal country crooner – a guy who knew which songs would make people dance or sing along or cry, and who was happy to perform them. When he died he was in the middle of touring to promote his forthcoming album, “I Got This.” In the most recent interview I can find of him – filmed four months ago – he thanks the interviewer for taking the time to speak to him, sounding more like an artist who’s still working his way up than one who will no doubt soon be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“I hope I’d always be known as a great singer, but that’s really secondary,” Joe told an interviewer several years ago. “If people could say, ‘He was a good friend, a nice guy, someone you could trust,’ I’d be really satisfied. Strip everything else away, and those are the things that matter the most.”