When Mick Jagger sang about sex, drugs and rock and roll, nobody doubted his credibility. When Johnny Cash sang “Walk The Line,” people knew he’d had trouble walkin’ one. And when Emmylou Harris sang about heartbreak, audiences felt her ache.
Authentic artists share a gift for communicating truth; truth mined from their own life experiences and expertly spun into three-minute, melodic vignettes. Vanguard/Sugar Hill Records duo Joey+Rory, the husband-wife team of Joey Martin and Rory Feek, is among that rare breed of talent that lives and breathes what they write and sing. This duo, deeply rooted in a classic country sound, draws listeners into an intimate, close-knit community with their debut release The Life of a Song.
Twelve songs, seven of them co-written by Rory and Joey, comprise the colorful landscape where this couple is perfectly in its element: scuffed cowboy boots (“Boots”), dusty rodeo arenas (“Rodeo”), laying down the truth (“Cheater Cheater”) and enduring love stories (“To Say Goodbye”). Backed by some of Nashville’s finest acoustic musicians, Joey+Rory bow a standout disc that is as personal as it is plausible.
While her distinguishing vocal talent, influenced by Dolly Parton and Connie Smith, rivals the competition on country playlists, Joey communicates with a more nuanced delivery. Rory, a former Marine and decorated songwriter with chart-topping hits by Collin Raye, Blake Shelton, Clay Walker and others, compliments Joey with tasteful guitar work and subtle harmonies.
To any onlooker, the humble Rory, in his daily uniform of overalls and work boots, is the obvious match for the down-to-earth Joey. The honey-voiced Joey is a throwback to old school female country entertainers in her standard attire of western-yoked shirts, Wranglers and belt buckles. She’s as at home onstage as at the Pottsville, Tenn., farm she shares with Rory and his two daughters.
After migrating from Indiana almost a decade ago, Joey worked with her second love, horses, at an equine vet clinic while trying to establish her own foothold in the music industry. After a brief, disappointing stint as a Sony recording artist, where they recorded an album with her, but never released a single, Joey opted for a slower pace. In 2006, along with her sister-in-law, she opened a restaurant named Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse not far from their home.
From the refurbished, clapboard mercantile in the heart of the couple’s tight-knit, rural town, mornings commence at 4 a.m. Joey, when she is not on the road gigging with Rory, still bakes bread and pours coffee for friends and customers at Marcy Jo’s. After the lunch shift, she hones her music at the couple’s 1870’s farmhouse, while Rory pens hits on music row at his publishing company, Giantslayer Music.
Over the course of their six-year marriage, Joey and Rory’s musical talents have often intersected. “Joey’s musical gift completes mine,” Rory says, “her voice makes the words I write come to life.” Joey, recalling the first time she heard Rory play his conversational tunes about small-town life and simple faith, says, “His songs felt like home. That first night I saw him playing at the Bluebird Café, he was speaking my language. Those were the only kinds of songs I wanted to sing,” she says.
With Joey and Rory pursuing independent music careers, the pair’s musical paths converged serendipitously this spring, after a friend suggested the two throw their hats, quite uncharacteristically, into the ring for Country Music Television’s (CMT) nationally broadcast reality contest for duos, Can You Duet. Rory, a Kansas native whose first writing gig was for legendary songsmith Harlan Howard’s publishing company, was apprehensive. “When I came to town in ‘95, I put all my singing dreams away,” he says. “I quickly realized it was a beauty contest, and it was a game I wasn’t willing to play, and one I definitely wouldn’t win,” he notes. On the show, however, with Joey right by his side, Rory was emboldened onstage. “It was like singing at home around the kitchen table, except we were in front of millions of people each week on TV”.
When the curtain went up, Joey+Rory’s natural chemistry instantly hooked fans and critics. Executives from internet retailer Overstock.com saw the pair perform and signed Joey and Rory to be the new faces of the company’s national re-branding and ad campaign. But it was celebrity judge Naomi Judd who championed the act from its first audition. Joey and Rory credit Judd for imparting these poignant words of wisdom: “Not matter what anyone tells you…Never change what you’re doing.”
“That was the moment that cemented [the collaboration] for us,” Rory says. Joey continues: “I grew up singing [The Judds’] ‘Mama He’s Crazy’ with my mom, and I had so much respect for Naomi. She confirmed everything we already felt— that God pointed us in this direction on purpose—and she put her stamp of approval on it.”
Moments of clarity like these have been guiding the pair all along. Joey says she knew, from the first song she heard Rory sing, she was going to spend her life with him. For Rory, destiny came into focus a few months after meeting Joey and was similarly was ushered in by a song. The two were swapping musical influences one night when they stumbled upon common ground. Joey was telling Rory about the vintage country standards she grew up hearing her father play on his twelve-string. “They were all old songs he and Mom used to play, I’d never heard them on the radio,” she recalls.
Rory shares a similar back story, as his father’s biggest, unrealized dream was to be a country singer. When Joey grabbed a guitar and started in on Jim Reeves’ 1950’s gem, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Rory was enraptured. “My dad played and sang the same 10 songs his whole life, and ‘Have I Told You Lately’ was his favorite. It’s the only song that was sung at his funeral. I had been in Nashville for seven years, and no one had ever played, or even mentioned, that song. I knew in that moment we were supposed to be together,” he says.
The duo’s debut, produced by Grammy Award-winning producer Carl Jackson (Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard), reflects the collective heart of Joey+Rory. “We’ve been writing songs about our lives together for the last few years, and this is perfect timing because we have songs that are uniquely ours. We’re not just telling a story, but telling our story,” Rory says. aFan favorites, culled from Joey+Rory’s Can You Duet run, will also be part of the October release, in addition to new tracks penned by Shawn Camp , Jason Patrick Mathews and others. “Cheater Cheater,” the buoyant and brash anti-“Jolene,” is the duo’s first single. The industry-poking “Play The Song,” with which the couple auditioned for the show, also made the cut, in addition to a soulful waltz rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.”
“This is a special part of our lives and love story—just like the restaurant is a part of Joey’s life, and just like songwriting is a part of mine,” comments Rory. “The reason we have the plus sign between our names is because at first it was Joey. Add me in there, and the combination just feels right I guess. You know, it’s great to do what you love for a living, but it’s a whole different game to get to do it with the one you love.