Introducing Joey + Rory: “Like Two Names Carved in an Oak Tree”
Donning stage attire that typically consists of boots, a collared shirt and overalls, 43-year-old songwriter Rory Lee Feek, who has penned hits including Clay Walker’s “Chain of Love” and Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach,” stands far apart from the quasi-rock styled twenty somethings that dominate CMT. In fact, Feek may be one of the least likely individuals to ever be vaulted into the national spotlight via a reality TV talent competition–let alone one aired by the aforementioned, MTV-owned network.
That, however, is exactly what has happened to the husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory, which consists of Feek and his wife Joey Martin. Together, Feek and Martin navigated all the way to the final episode of CMT’s Can You Duet before being outdueled for the crown by the years-younger Caitlin and Will.
But with a feisty debut single already clawing its way into country radio playlists across the nation, and an album, The Life of a Song, in stores months before the planned release from the show’s victors, this duo–which hadn’t even been conceived prior to Can You Duet–seems like a winner, what with their time on the show being rewarded in the form of a record deal, national media attention, and an unexpected second chance for Martin, who was once signed to, and subsequently released from, Sony.
Perhaps the greatest reward of all for their time on Can You Duet, however, is the fact that the couple now gets to experience the fruits of their labor together, as partners in art. They are, after all, already partners in essentially every other aspect of their lives, their deeply transcendent adoration of each other clearly evident. And so, despite the fact that Feek and Martin had never performed together as Joey + Rory before the show, their musical partnership doesn’t really seem all that unlikely.
Without a doubt, Joey + Rory stands out in a country music crowd dominated by youth and the pop-leaning music that is often produced by those younger artists. The couple is older than most new artists–their ages would even make them ineligible to compete on that other reality show, the one that has launched the careers of Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler–and their music, often upbeat but at times heartbreakingly sad or less than politically correct, is, as Rory describes it, the “country kind” of country music often passed over when it comes to radio airplay and mainstream attention.
Despite all of that, however, the one thing that makes Joey + Rory stand out most of all is their relationship with each other, a love so strong and glowing that it can’t help but seep into their music, their vocal harmony carrying that indescribable quality that only emanates from two people singing together who share a bond that stretches far beyond the singer/singer dynamic. These are two people, yes, who share an intense and intimate passion for singing, for storytelling, and for country music, but their passion for each other is what binds all of this together and renders the product of their talents in each of those areas uniquely their own.
And if you don’t believe in love at first sight, or if you don’t believe that there are certain people in this world who are meant–by nature, by God, by some mysterious and unknown force of the universe–to be together, then you haven’t met Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek, who remind us just how special and powerful love can be when two people get it right.
JIM MALEC: We’ve all heard quite a bit of the story surrounding how the two of you met, but I’d like you to take me back a bit further–where did you grow up, what kinds of things were you involved with as a kid, and how did you first fall in love with country music?
RORY LEE FEEK: I’m from Atchison, Kansas, a little railroad town right on the river. My father was a country singer–that was his passion. He used to play at clubs and such when I was real, real young. I don’t really remember that too much. But he mostly played in the bedroom and sang for us. And he was very, very, very good. I just remember his passion and how much he loved country music–he worked on the railroad, but singing is what he always wanted to be doing. He had always wanted to move to Nashville, but never did. And even though my parents divorced when I was real little, the times when I did see him…I think I even put him up on a higher pedestal, because I didn’t see him that much.
I always loved country music and I think his dream got passed to me early on. And other than a few sidetracks, where I thought I wanted to be a trucker and a couple of other things, I always just wanted to be a country singer.
By ninth grade I was writing songs–as soon as I learned how to play guitar. Oddly enough, Dad didn’t teach me how to play–I ended up buying a Don Williams and a Jim Croce songbook. And from those two songbooks, I taught myself how to play. I would put my tape recorder on in my bedroom and just record hours of music [from the radio], and I’d learn every song I recorded. When I was writing out those lyrics and chords, as I was learning them, it just caused me to think about how they worked, and to pay attention to the words. So I started writing songs. And I was always writing songs and singing all through those next, I don’t know, fifteen years or something.
At about age 30, I moved to Nashville. By then I’d been married and divorced, and I’d been in the Marine Corps for eight years. On my first trip here [to Nashville] I think I realized that you could make a living being a songwriter. And that’s immediately what I wanted to do. I could tell that it was kind of a beauty contest for singers, and that wasn’t a fight I thought I was going to compete well in. But in songwriting, the best song can win, and I felt like I could do that. And so that’s what I’ve been doing for the last, oh, thirteen years or so. I think I moved here in ’95.
JM: And congratulations to you on the success that you’ve found so far. What was your favorite Don Williams song from that songbook?
RORY: Probably a song called “She Never Knew Me.” I don’t even know if it was a big hit for him, but it’s funny, when you’re growing up, the songs that are around you. My dad sang that one. He sang a few other Williams songs, but that one he sang a lot. I love that song–I always did–and so it’s still probably my favorite Don Williams song.
JM: Joey, you’re up. Tell me your story.
JOEY MARTIN: I’m from a farming community in Alexandria, Indiana, and I’m the middle of five kids. My dad was a GM worker and my mom was a housewife. My mom and dad actually met singin’ in a band together in high school, and the singing was passed down to me. At a young age I got a taste of what it was to perform, and I just really, really felt like I had something to offer to people.
The very first song I ever learned was Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” at the age of five. It was a long song, and I remember thinking that it had a lot of words…and I couldn’t read. So they sat me down and Dad played and Mom sang while they recorded it on this little tape recorder. Then they sent me to my room and said, “When you learn this, you come down and you sing it for us.” So up I went, and about three hours later I came back down and knew the song word for word.
Growin’ up I knew that I wanted to go to Nashville when I graduated high school. When I was 22 I think I moved to Nashville; I loaded up a cattle stock trailer with all my belongings and Mom helped me move. And I just worked. Instead of working as a waitress or anything like that, the only thing I knew how to do was be around horses, ‘cause I’d always been around horses. I had worked in a vet clinic for quite a few years back in Indiana, and that was kinda my trade, cleanin’ stalls and bein’ a vet’s helper. So when I moved to Nashville, I continued to do that and worked my way, eventually, over to Lebanon, Tennessee, where I worked on a farm for LeAnn Rimes’ dad Wilbur. I managed his cattle operation and his horses.
Then I started networking a little bit, and the very first songwriters night I went to, Rory was playing. I didn’t know anything about him, I didn’t know who he was. But I knew I fell in love the moment I heard him and watched him play. Ironically, it wasn’t ‘till a few years later that we actually met.
JM: Your label was very adamant with me about the fact that your name is “Joey plus Rory,” not “Joey and Rory.” What’s the story with the plus sign?
RORY: There are a lot of “ands” out there. And we’ve been very adamant about the plus sign, too, actually. Mostly because it’s hard to separate yourself from the pack, and I think if you get to watch us or see us you’ll see that we are a little different. But if you just read “Joey and Rory,” well, it might as well be “Brooks and Dunn,” or whoever.
And really, the plus says a number of different things to us. I mean, it was already Joey. She was already a great singer. And this is just adding me onto what she was already doing. The other part of it is that we’re together, like two names carved in an oak tree. And we want to be together for a long time. So I think that’s really kinda where it came from, and why we’re trying to make it stick. It’s just tough ‘cause most people just ignore it and still do the Joey and Rory, and we’re glad that anybody writes or says anything about us, so we don’t complain.
JM: Let’s talk about Can You Duet. What was it like taking part in a nationally televised talent competition? Were you prepared for everything that your participation in the show would entail?
JOEY: I don’t think we had any idea what we were getting in to. It wasn’t something we were going to do at all–we didn’t even hear about it until somebody told us about it. That somebody said, “Y’all should go out for it,” and we literally looked at the guy and said, “Y’all who?”
“You and Rory,” he said. “As a husband and wife. As a duo.”
First off, we don’t even watch reality TV, let alone could we imagine participating in such a thing. But we made this little home video that we turned in to audition with, and there was something about it, evidently, that the people at CMT loved. They loved our backstory, and the fact that I own a restaurant [Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse in Pottsville, TN] and the fact that Rory’s a songwriter, and that we just collaborate as a duo in life.
We auditioned for the show, and we ended up making the top 25 and moved into the Opryland Hotel. Then we made it from the top 25 to the top 12, then it went down to eight, and then the big show started on the main stage. I really think it was nerve wracking for us, but the beauty of it was that we had each other for support; we faced our fears and the challenges together and head-on. And there wasn’t really anything stopping us once we got started, as far as our momentum. We just held on to each other and enjoyed the ride, and couldn’t believe we were a part of it.
(To read the rest of The 9513′s exclusive interview with Joey + Rory, click on the link below.)
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