Every #1 Country Single of the Nineties: Joe Diffie, “Ships That Don’t Come In”

“Ships That Don’t Come In”

Joe Diffie

Written by Dave Gibson and Paul Nelson

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

July 3, 1992

Joe Diffie tops the charts with one of his best singles.

The Road to No. 1

After four No. 1 singles from his debut album, A Thousand Winding Roads, Joe Diffie previewed his sophomore set with “Is it Cold in Here,” which went top five.  The next release became the only number one single from Regular Joe. 

The No. 1

For those of you waiting for Joe Ditty to arrive, you’re going to have to be patient.

“Ships That Don’t Come In” is an extraordinary ballad about a heart-to-heart conversation between two guys who are down on their luck, but take the time to appreciate the opportunities afforded them that others never had.

It’s moving, empathetic, and more than a little heartbreaking.  The early nineties recession produced a few great songs in this vein – Pirates of the Mississippi had “Feed Jake” and “A Streetman Named Desire,” while Sawyer Brown had “Café on the Corner” – but this was the only one that made it to the top.

It’s as powerful and resonant today as it’s ever been, and deserves to be as highly regarded and frequently streamed as “Pickup Man” and “Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die).”

The Road From No. 1

Diffie missed the top ten with his next three singles: “Next Thing Smokin'” and “Startin’ Over Blues” from Regular Joe, and “Not Too Much to Ask,” a duet with Mary Chapin Carpenter.  However, Regular Joe still became Diffie’s first gold album.  His next set, Honky Tonk Attitude, did even better, selling platinum on the strength of its three top five hits: the title track, “Prop Me Up,” and “John Deere Green.”

Diffie would finally return to the top with the lead single from his fourth studio set.  We’ll cover it when we get to 1994.

“Ships That Don’t Come In” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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Next: Garth Brooks, “The River”


  1. Yet another one of Joe Diffie’s very best ballads from the early 90’s! It’s simply a beautiful song, overall, with a powerful message that still rings true today. Love the production by Bob Montgomery, as well as Diffie’s performance. If you ever see any of the clips of him performing this at the 1992 award shows, it’s simply amazing how long he could hold that high note when he sang the last “And those who wait forever…” What a true talent this man was!

    As much as I really like this song, it’s one I didn’t truly discover and appreciate until I bought the Regular Joe album at a bargain price at Wal-Mart in the early 00’s. I loved the entire album instantly, but this was always one track that stuck out to me. Like Trisha’s “The Woman Before Me,” this is one that I don’t have as much recollection of hearing during the early 90’s for some reason, though it did sound familiar when I first heard it on the album. It didn’t help either that this song didn’t seem to get much recurrent play for us either after its chart run was over, which is a shame. Oh well, better late than never, they say!

    I also totally agree that this song (along with “Home,” “Is It Cold In Here,” “If The Devil Danced,” and heck, the rest of the singles from his debut) deserves to be remembered as much as his later novelty songs. As someone who enjoyed Joe Diffie before and after he became “Joe Ditty,” it’s a bit frustrating at times to see the more serious side of him get overlooked often these days, especially since I always felt his ballads were some of his best songs that really showed the world how great of a singer he was. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy some of his fun songs, as well, though. Speaking of his fun side, I’m especially quite shocked to see none of the singles off the third album was a number one! Especially, “Prop Me Up,” since that seems to be one of his biggest hits ever, and is one of my favorites, as well. I also really love “Not Too Much To Ask” with Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I wish that could’ve been a bigger hit.

    And speaking of “Feed Jake,” it’s such a shame that wasn’t a number one. Yet another great song that instantly brings back all sorts of early 90’s nostalgia for me!

  2. One of Diffie’s best ballads this song stalled at #5 on Billboard’s country chart. That said, it is probably my favorite of all of his recordings

  3. Easily Diffie’s best song. After his next round of singles underperformed, it is understandable why he went the route he did with his novelty songs to find chart success, carve out his own niche, and keep up with the competition.

    I still, however, can’t help but wonder what might have been had he been able to stay with material like this. He could have carried Vern Gosdin’s torch deep into the 90’s.

  4. Luckily, he was good at doing both serious balads like this and the fun novelty type songs. Two of my favorite Diffie songs are “Junior’s in Love” and “Good Brown Gravy.” They are so silly and fun and not just anyone could pull that off as well as he did.

  5. Yeah, as much flack as he got for doing a lot of novelty songs back then, I always felt that Joe was one of the few who could actually pull those kind of songs off very well, unlike say Tracy Byrd. Diffie just had the sort of charm and personality to make most of those songs work, imo.

    Like Peter though, I do always wonder “what could’ve been” if he had been allowed to still have success with songs like “Ships…,” “Home,” “If You Want Me To,” “Is It Cold In Here,” etc. Funny he should mention Vern Gosdin, because I always thought of early Joe Diffie as sort of a 90’s version of Vern. They even both shared the same producer in Bob Montgomery and were both on Sony Nashville record labels (Vern was on Columbia and Joe was on Epic).

    I always thought the label saw the writing on the wall with him no longer having success with ballads when the first three upbeat singles off his third album were successful, but the fourth single, the gorgeous ballad “In My Own Backyard,” didn’t do as well.

  6. And Leaan and Jaime are right to point out Diffie did just fine bringing his own light to country music with his novelty songs. He didn’t need to be a Gosdin acolyte. He always sounded like he was having fun even with the slightest of material. He didn’t sound uncomfortable and insincere the way so many Bro-Country acts do to my ears. He was seemingly in on evry joke as with “A Cold Budweiser and Sweet Tater” and “The Cows Came Home.”

  7. I love this song and it’s so easy to forget this side of Joe Diffie. He just had so many corny novelty songs (I found Pickup Man particulary insufferable and I was like 12 at the time, I can’t imagine how it would land for me now). In a weird way though, remembering him for the stuff like Bigger than the Beatles and Third Rock From the Sun makes songs like Ships, Home, and Something Like This pack an even more powerful punch.

    I saw him live at a local county fair around 1995 and there is where the value of the cornball stuff really shows itself. Every single one of his goofier songs palpably raised the energy of the audience.

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