Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Joe Diffie, “If the Devil Danced (in Empty Pockets)”

“If the Devil Danced (in Empty Pockets)”

Joe Diffie

Written by Ken Spooner and Kim Williams

Billboard

#1 (1 week)

June 15, 1991

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

May 31, 1991

Hello, Joe Ditty!

The Road to No. 1

After two chart-topping ballads from his debut album, A Thousand Winding Roads, Epic went uptempo for the first time.

The No. 1

Joe Ditty was the derisive name given to Joe Diffie in the mid-nineties when he was putting out one novelty record after another, but it’s always been unfairly dismissive of his talent. Thing is, it’s actually quite hard to pull off humorous songs, and there’s a long and lasting legacy of the very best traditional country artists releasing this type of material, from George Jones and Buck Owens to George Strait and John Conlee.

“If the Devil Danced (in Empty Pockets)” was the earliest indication that Diffie could sing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, and it’s a winner.  This tale of a working class schlub signing his life away at a car dealership keeps things just light enough to be amusing, while not going so far in the direction of comedy that it becomes a farce.

In a few recent posts from this series, I’ve noted how artists haven’t fully found their voice in the studio yet, but Joe Diffie was a fantastic song interpreter right out of the gate.  Thirty years later, he can still make me crack a smile, no matter how many times I’ve heard his songs.

The Road From No. 1

Diffie has another No. 1 on the way from his debut album this year.

“If the Devil Danced (in Empty Pockets)” gets a B+.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

Previous: Mark Chesnutt, “Blame it On Texas” | Next: Garth Brooks, “The Thunder Rolls”

 

6 Comments

  1. “…between 1990 and 1996 joe diffie was practically a constant item of the top forty country charts due to an average of four single-releases from his albums in this period. hence, almost on permanent rotation at any country radio show in america at the time” (citation from “regular joe is dead”, country style magazine, in memoriam: joe diffie, may 2020). even though not terribly well executed, jason aldean was on the right track in general 2013 with his “1994”.

  2. I pulled into a parking space at a stop-n-shop in North Bellmore over 35 years ago. Before I could shut off the engine, i heard “Diablo Motors Had a Hell of Sale … I was hooked. I still love that song. I give it an A. RIP Joe.

  3. Really love this song, and it’s so fun! This is actually probably my most favorite of his lighthearted upbeat numbers. I never even really thought of it as a novelty song, and always just thought of it as a very fun Western Swing ditty similar to Mark Chesnutt’s “Old Flames Have New Names.” Despite hearing him mention on numerous occasions that he didn’t care much for this song when his producer first gave it to him, he sounds like he’s having the time of his life singing it here on this recording. Love the overall arrangement and sound of this record, as well. Another thing I always liked about the early 90’s was how there was still room for a little Western Swing in mainstream country.

    This is also another one of the first songs from Joe I remember really liking from him, and it brings back some great memories. I especially remember my step dad and I both enjoying it together in the car whenever it came on. It also really takes me back to the Fall of 1991, and I even have it on a tape I recorded from that time (with even a few Christmas songs mixed in, since it was around the holidays).

    Btw, I really love the video for this song, as well! It fits the song perfectly, and the dancers and Joe’s shrug at the end still crack me up.

  4. This song was too smart, and swung too hard, to be considered a novelty tune. Rather, it was a well delivered bit of self-deprecating humour and fun. Maybe that is splitting hairs, but what was novelty with Diffie would become obvious soon enough.

    Regardless of what side of the novelty divide you fall out on, Diffie sings, and swings, the hell out of this song. The production is unabashedly country. It is his confidence as a vocalist that sets him apart and puts him in league with Travis Tritt as the best new singer in Nashville.

    Where Mark Chestnutt sounded uncertain and tentative with his most recent number one, and Doug Stone sounded sanitized and soft with his first number one, Diffie strides into his third chart topper with confidence, ease, and a joyful sense of silliness.

    Maybe the most memorable of his singles for me from his debut album. I always smile when it is still played on the radio.

  5. This song definitely has the kind of wry humor that country music isn’t exactly historically known for, which is why it stands out. And although it’s not specific, I must at the idea that this takes place at a used-car dealership, where, as we all know, the cliche is that the dealers set the odomoeters back on their cars a couple of thousand miles (LOL).

  6. I agree with Peter Saros that this is not exactly a novelty tune; however , I’m not sure how to classify it. It has elements of the picaresque but that doesn’t exactly describe it either.

    However one describes it, the song is well sung and well executed and a helluva lot of fun. An easy “A”

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