John Shearer: Remembering When Joe Diffie Played At Riverbend

Wednesday, April 1, 2020 - by John Shearer
When I heard the sad news that country music singer Joe Diffie had died Sunday at age 61 after testing positive for coronavirus, I started remembering that he had once played at the Riverbend Festival.
 
The only reason I remember that fact is that I covered his performance when I was working for the Chattanooga News-Free Press. I could not remember the exact date, but I went through my old clippings and learned that it was June 25, 1993.
 
He might have played in Chattanooga at other times over the years as well.
 
Looking at the story I wrote that ran on the front of the next day’s paper, as all Riverbend stories about the headline act did at that time, it was obvious that he was well received.
 
I was not a big fan of country music, but I volunteered to cover two or three headline acts a year just to write about the positive and entertaining atmosphere that usually existed.
I always enjoyed that kind of newspaper writing, rather than covering a governmental body meeting that could get rather long. 
 
I know the rival Chattanooga Times at that time would usually have an early deadline and would not be able to write a whole lot about the headline act that would not start on the Coca-Cola Stage until close to 10 p.m. So, I always tried to be thorough in my coverage and would sometimes be writing at the paper until midnight or 12:30 a.m., which I usually preferred instead of rushing through it after I arrived back at the paper at 6 a.m. for the daily shift to get the afternoon paper out.
 
Needless to say, I did not get a lot of sleep on those nights, but all the fun and entertainment were worth it.
 
The detail in my story has also helped in remembering some aspects of his performance nearly 27 years later!
 
On the Friday night he was to appear – which was also the exact night of David Letterman’s last “Late Night” show on NBC before he moved to CBS – rain had been forecast, but I wrote that the only thunder came from his performance.
 
After playing a few songs early on, the then long-haired 30-something singer said, “Hello Chattanooga. We like Chattanooga real well. Y’all treat us real good.”
 
The Oklahoma native and somewhat traditional country singer then played his current hit, “Honky Tonk Heaven,” off what was his new album. 
 
He then played “That was the Easy Part” and “I Can’t Walk the Line if it Ain’t Too Straight,” and followed those up with “If the Devil Danced,” jokingly telling the crowd that was his band’s theme song.
 
Mr. Diffie then introduced a new future hit song, “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox If I Die.”
 
“Y’all be listening for that now,” he told the local audience. “US 101 promised me they’d play it.”
 
One line in the song is “I want to go to heaven; I just don’t want to go tonight.”
 
He also sang another sentimental song about the homeless and others “whose ship has not come in yet,” and apparently told the crowd he had been laid off from a foundry job in 1986.
 
Later in the set, he played “Here Comes That Train” and “Cold Budweiser and Sweet Tater.” And after a brief break, he concluded with a few other numbers, including an old ZZ Top song in which he substituted Chattanooga for Dallas, Texas, in the words.
 
This performance of 1 hour and 15 minutes was well received. The large Chattanooga crowd enjoyed him, and he seemed to have a friendly rapport with them in return. 
 
I don’t think I ever played one of his songs again after that concert, as I usually preferred other types of music, even though I have appreciated country music more as I have grown older.
 
But I certainly appreciated the sincere performance of this ‘90s star back in 1993, and memories of the warm vibes of that night have stayed with me ever since.  
 
Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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