My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Tougher Than Nails’

After the loss of his Monument deal, Joe signed to the indie label Broken Bow, for whom he released one album in 2004. He shared production duties with Lonnie Wilson and Buddy Cannon.

He was still a viable hit maker on country radio, even on a minor label, and the title track (a religious song) reached the top 20. Written by Phil O’Donnell, Max T Barnes and Kendell Marvel, it links a modern story (a little boy beaten up by bullies) to the example of Jesus. Perhaps not the most innovative of lyrics, but it is well done, as the father advises his boy against revenge:

Let me tell you a little story about the toughest man I know
Hit him and he just turned the other cheek
But don’t think for a minute he was weak
Cause in the end he showed them he was anything but frail
They hammered him to a cross
But He was tougher than nails

Later on the album, Joe takes the opposite message from a rather different role model in the tongue-in-cheek ‘What Would Waylon Do’, featuring a guest vocal from George Jones (doing his best Waylon impersonation). It was written by Leslie Satcher and Wynn Varble about the tribulations of being a touring musician, and was apparently initially inspired by an incident at a real Waylon Jennings concert when the promoter declined to pay him:

There’s blue cheese in the greenroom
What are we supposed to eat?
And the opening act’s a polka band
And they can’t keep a beat

Now the sheriff’s got the drug dogs
Tearing up our bus
We’re just hillbilly singers
I think he’s profiling us
And now he wants an autograph
And a free t-shirt or two
Well, what would Waylon do?

The second single, ‘If I Could Only Bring You Back’ (selected by the label owner and written by Frank Myers and Chip Davis) failed to make much of an impact. That was radio’s loss, as it was a beautifully interpreted, if rather sad and downbeat tale of bereavement, with understated string section. The protagonist declares he would be willing to give up all his worldly goods, if only the impossible could happen, but:

There’s no words I can say
Not a prayer I can pray
No road that you can take
Back to my arms

I would even take your place
If I could only bring you back

The December-set ‘This Time Last Year’, written by Giles Godard, Bobby Tomberlin and Robbie Wittkowski, has a similar feeling of loss. ‘Good News, Bad News’, written by Danny Wells and Chris Wallin, is even better, a sensitively delivered ballad about struggling with getting over lost love with nothing to look forward to but more of the same:

I’d unfeel the way I feel
If it would make you ungone
Gotta stop livin’ in the past
Look forward and not back
This getting used to go goin’ on without you
Is gonna take some time
The good news is tomorrow’s another day
But the bad news is tomorrow’s another day

Joe wrote five of the twelve tracks, including a rare solo composition, ‘Movin’ Train’, a song about an unsettling relationship which I can imagine bluegrass-style.

There was a return to the up-tempo fun novelty songs with the Shawn Camp co-write ‘The More You Drink, The Better I Look’. This would have been a big hit in Joe’s heyday, with its honky-tonk piano as the protagonist spends thirteen hours drinking iced tea waiting for his luck to change, but an apparently rather innocent payoff – he claims,

All I’m looking for is a little bit of good honest dancin’
I just want to have a little fun before I go back home

My favorite track is ‘Am I’, written by Joe with Billy Yates. This is classic anguished Joe Diffie ballad vocal, as the protagonist faces up to a relationship on the verge of goodbye, and asks his soon-to-be-ex:

Are you gonna be the first
To spread your wings and fly?
Or am I?

Oh, which one will it be?
Is it you or is it me?
Is a walkin’ out the door is what we’re waitin’ for?

Harley Allen helped Joe to write ‘Something I Do For Me’, a melancholy ballad about clinging to a memory with a pretty melody. Joe teamed up with Jimmy Yeary to write the nostalgic, and ultimately sad, ‘Daddy’s Home’, a touching tribute to a late father, “the greatest man I’ve ever known”.

The punchy contemporary sounding ‘Nothin’ But the Radio’, written by Frank Myers and George Teren, pays tribute to the joys of a car radio. It isn’t a favorite of mine, as it does not have much melody, and I hate country songs which reference listening to other genres (here the Eagles and Stones are given equal credit with Strait and Jones), and the whole thing just feels unimaginative and perfunctory. The album close with the slow bluesy description of ‘My Redneck Of the Woods’, written by fellow Broken Bow artist Craig Morgan with his regular collaborator Phil O’Donnell. It’s not a bad song of its type, but one of the less memorable moments here.

Album sales were disappointing, and Joe duly exited the label. Until his recent return to his bluegrass roots, his recording career seemed to be at an end; the release of his bluegrass album Homecoming has been postponed until October but is something I am looking forward to. This final fling is a fairly solid record, although certainly not his best.

Grade: B

The CD is no longer available new, but used copies are cheap.

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