THE AIR WAS ALL BUT AFLAME WITH THE stories. Someone said she’d seen country singer Joe Diffie tooling around Hueytown, Ala., in a truck belonging to hometown hero Davey Allison, the champion NASCAR driver who died after a July helicopter crash at Alabama’s Talladega speedway. Someone else said Diffie was staying at the Allison house with Davey’s widow, Liz. And there were even rumors that Liz and Joe had gotten married.
It was enough to make some of the locals want to jump in their pickups and run Diffie all the way back home to Nashville. A sign saying, “Hueytown—Home of Joe Diffie—Built by Davey Allison,” appeared briefly at a busy intersection near Liz’s newly finished mansion, and some of Davey’s fans threatened to picket the house with signs reading “28,” the number of his race car. Says Hueytown home-maker Frankie Roberson: “I’d like to tell Joe Diffie to keep his butt at home. Liz didn’t even give Davey time to get cold in his grave.”
Talk of the affair even upstaged discussion of football on the radio, a near sacrilege in gridiron-worshipping Alabama. “It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen,” says Paul Finebaum, who hosts a sports talk show on Birmingham’s WERC-AM. “Two of the biggest [college] games in the country were in Alabama that week, and all people wanted to talk about was Liz and Joe. We had people saying they knew for a fact she was pregnant with Joe’s baby. We had people saying Liz Allison was the biggest slut in town.”
Before anybody got out a rope, Liz and Joe decided to come forward and tell PEOPLE their side of the story. Joe admits that the two are “falling in love.” But, says Liz, 28, who has two children by Davey, Krista, 3, and Robert, 2, “this is not a slap in Davey’s face. This is a woman trying to go on with her life. And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t grieve.”
Liz and Joe shake their heads at the rumors that have spread since they began dating in August. “We are not married, we’re not living together, and she’s not pregnant,” says Joe, 34. He adds that his impending divorce from second wife Debbie, 35, after six years of marriage, was inevitable long before he met Allison. (The Diffies have two children, Tyler, 4, and Drew, 2.) “Anyone who knows us knows that,” he says.
In fact, though Joe met Liz briefly twice before, when she and Davey came backstage after concerts, he says he didn’t see her again until he heard she was trying to get the sheet music for his 1992 hit, “Ships That Don’t Come In,” to play at Davey’s funeral on July 15. A longtime NASCAR fan, Diffie volunteered to perform the song himself. “Then I called her a couple of weeks later to see how she and her children were doing,” says Joe.
As the phone calls continued—and the conversations grew longer and more personal—Joe invited Liz to his Aug. 3 show in Philadelphia, Miss., and romance bloomed. “It wasn’t anything I was looking for, but it happened,” says Liz. “When Davey died, I thought, ‘How will I ever go forward with my life? I’ll never have anybody I can share my life with again.’ And then Joe and I became friends.”
Soon afterward, Liz told Davey’s parents, NASCAR great Bobby Allison and his wife, Judy, that she was dating Joe. Although some of the Allisons’ friends contend that the family is less than pleased by the romance, Liz says the Allisons “have welcomed [Joe] and have been wonderful to me.” Davey’s grandmother, Kitty Allison, says, “I think she has the right to do what she wants.” Elisa Allison, 33, widow of Davey’s younger brother, Clifford, who was killed in an August 1992 race-car crash, agrees: “It’s like I told Liz, ‘When we go home at night and shut our doors, it’s us who grieve.’ If she feels like she needs someone to help her through this, that’s her prerogative. I think Davey would be happy that Liz is getting on with her life.”
The couple also have defenders in the NASCAR world. Diffie received a warm welcome at an Oct. 23 concert before the Winston Cup race, and Joan Farmer—wife of retired racer Red Farmer, who was injured in the copter crash that killed Davey—says she’s tired of strangers asking her about [Liz and Joe] and even “cussed a woman out in Wal-Mart” for being nosy.
Of course, not everyone has been so forgiving. “Joe Diffie wouldn’t dare come in here,” says Gay Ann McCrary, owner of Hueytown’s popular Iceburg Restaurant, where the paneled rear dining room is a virtual shrine to the Allisons. “I know a lot of people that won’t buy his records anymore.”
But Liz and Joe say they’re prepared for hard feelings. “Whether it was a month after Davey died or years after he died, somebody was not going to be exactly happy about [the relationship],” says Joe. “But we have to do what we feel is right and go with how our hearts feel. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
KATHY KEMP in Hueytown and JANE SANDERSON in Nashville