Courtesy Dillon Carmichael Shayla Whitson and Dillion Carmichael
Country artist Dillon Carmichael stands at 6 feet 2 inches tall, but his best friend is a bit smaller. The towering musician with a deep voice is also a big teddy bear who loves his little dog: a three-pound teacup Yorkshire Terrier named Joe Diffie.
"One of my favorite '90s country artists, Joe Diffie, had passed away earlier in the year," Carmichael, 28, tells PEOPLE about the inspiration behind the name of his treasured pet. "When we were choosing names for our new puppy, I knew I didn't want something generic, so Joe Diffie came to mind, and I thought, 'What a great tribute to one of my musical influences!' "
Joe Diffie is one of two dogs that Carmichael and his fiancée Shayla Whitson care for in their Nashville home — the other dog is a second teacup Yorkie named Parker.
"Parker is getting a little older," Carmichael admits of the couple's four-pound, 8-year-old dog. "We had read somewhere that if you get them another dog, they'll live longer. Joe Diffie always gets along with Parker, but Parker doesn't always get along with Joe Diffie."
Carmichael's love for the pair and all canines goes back to his childhood.
"My parents had dogs even before they had me," says the Kentucky native who moved to Nashville 10 years ago to pursue a country music career. "So, I just have always loved dogs, and I've always had a dog, and I couldn't imagine not having a dog. I don't even know what life would be like without one."
So it almost seemed like fate when Carmichael met Whitson on New Year's Eve in 2017 and found out she was a dog lover too.
"Shayla came to a show after we had first met and brought Parker," remembers Carmichael, who recently made his 18th appearance onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. "I remember her asking if it was okay to bring her dog. And me and the band all just fell in love with him."
"Every time I say his name, his little ears perk up," the "Hot Beer" singer adds.
"He has always loved going on car rides," adds Whitson, 25, of the dog she originally got as a gift from her parents just about nine years ago. "And that particular night, I was just driving around Lexington, Kentucky, and Dillon texted me and said he was in town. So, Parker just tagged along."
Courtesy Dillon Carmichael
Carmichael and Whitson's mutual love of dogs strengthened their early relationship and continues to be a part of their lives today. Currently, on the road for his "Son of A" Tour, Carmichael makes a point of regularly bringing the Yorkies backstage.
"When we bring the dogs on the road, we can't even hang out with them because the guys in the band literally steal them from us," Carmichael says. "Our bass player actually has a Yorkie of his own too."
As Carmichael and Whitson continue planning their wedding later this year, they agree that they want to incorporate everything special to them into their big day, including their dogs.
"They're definitely going to need like someone to lead them down the aisle," Carmichael says. "I'm pretty sure they would just run away."
Courtesy Dillon Carmichael
Of course, Carmichael is a man of many loves, with one of the latest being his new album Son of A.
"This album is my pride and joy," the artist says of his sophomore album. "This is the thing I'm most proud of when it comes to music, especially since it's been two years in the making. And it really is just so special to me."
The album's title track is also hitting a chord with Carmichael's growing legion of fans.
"I feel like everyone can relate to 'Son of A' so much," says Carmichael of the touching song he wrote alongside Casey Beathard and Phil O'Donnell. "Just the meaning behind it so special. And even though I've heard it a thousand times, it still gives me cold chills every time I listen to it. It's very special to me."