By James Rea
Don’t miss the special year-end show with Rory Feek on The Producer’s Chair, Thursday, November 29, 6 p.m., at Douglas Corner. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.
When Rory Feek moved to Music City in 1995 to pursue his songwriting career, he methodically searched out Harlan Howard and introduced himself one day at the Sunset Grill. Talk about having great instincts—Howard signed Feek to his first publishing deal. Initially Feek never expected he would become an award-winning artist, a record producer, a TV producer, or a hit songwriter. He also never dreamed he would meet the love of his life, Miss Joey Martin, at The Bluebird Café. Four months after they started dating, they were married and four albums later Joey+Rory are one of America’s favorite husband & wife duos, as a result of The Joey+Rory Show on RFD Network.
Before the two met, Feek’s career as a songwriter had already taken off and Martin was signed to Sony as a solo artist but as they say, God had other plans. Martin and Sony had difficulty agreeing on her direction, so in 2005, Joey left Sony. Around the same time, Rory and his friend and co-writer Tim Johnson formed their own imprint Giantslayer Records. They began producing projects including two albums on Blaine Larsen, which they co-ventured with BNA Records and had the top 12 country radio hit “How Do You Get That Lonely,” which Rory co-wrote.
One day in late 2007, a friend suggested they team up as a duo and audition for a new show on CMT called Can You Duet. Although Rory had his reservations about being an artist, he agreed to give it a try. He bought a video camera, shot an audition tape at their farm south of Nashville and Joey dropped it off to the producers, along with a roll of Pecan Sticky Buns that she baked.
“I never, ever in a million years thought that I would be singing with Joey, be a part of producing projects with her or doing television,” says Feek. “But now, they kind of make sense because all of those things where you step out on a limb become amazing training ground for what you learn down the road.”
In 2008, Joey+Rory placed 3rd on Can You Duet, which led them to a record deal with Vanguard/Sugar Hill Records. Grammy winner Carl Jackson produced the duo’s first album, The Life of a Song, which debuted at No. 10 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and No. 61 on the all-genre Billboard 200 and sold 300,000 copies. Jackson also produced the couple’s 2008 holiday single “It’s Christmas Time” in partnership with CMT One Country, which donated a portion of proceeds to various charities including The Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee.
In 2009 they were nominated for both CMA Vocal Duo of the year and ACM Top Vocal Duo of the Year and in 2010, Joey+Rory released Album Number Two and won 2010 ACM Top New Vocal Duo of the Year. The lead-off single, “This Song’s for You,” was released to radio in July 2010. The music video was directed by Darren Doane and was released in August 2010. “That’s Important to Me” was released as the album’s second single in October 2010. The following year, they released their first Christmas album, A Farmhouse Christmas. That same year, they took home 2011 Vocal duo of the Year from the ICMA Awards. Album number four. Their third studio album, His and Hers, was released in July, 2012. “When I’m Gone” and “Josephine” served as the album’s first two singles and were simultaneously released to radio before the album. The duo has also appeared in many national television commercials for the online retailer Overstock.com.
Feek’s songwriting discography now boasts four No. 1s including Blake Shelton’s 2004 chart-topper “Some Beach,” which Feek co-wrote with Paul Overstreet. He also wrote Easton Corbin’s “A Little More Country Than That,” Clay Walker’s “The Chain of Love,” Colin Raye’s “Someone You Used To Know,” Jimmy Wayne’s “I Will” and Tracy Byrd’s “The Truth About Men” and has had cuts with artists such as Kenny Chesney, Randy Travis, Mark Wills, Terri Clark and Lorrie Morgan. He also penned “Cheater Cheater,” “Play The Song,” “To Say Goodbye,” “This Song’s for You” and “That’s Important to me,” which are some the songs responsible for the duo’s tremendous success.
If you think that love stories only exist on television, you’re wrong. On any given morning, you can find the couple between 7 am and 2 pm at their family-owned café, Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, shakin’ hands, signin’ autographs and posing for pictures. Six years ago, Rory’s sister Marcy (now a regular on the TV show) and Joey rented the refurbished 1890s mercantile and to this day, while Rory takes care of business writing TV treatments, juggling tour schedules and handling endorsements. Joey is generally there when she’s off the road with Marcy, cooking and serving up hearty meals, home-baked pastries and a bunch of genuine hospitality.
The Producer’s Chair: Whose idea was it to do a TV show?
Rory Feek: It was mine. What was really the game changer for us was when we realized that you cannot buy your work, or buy, your way onto radio, so you can’t reach your audience unless you get extremely lucky or have a powerful label and radio team. However, with TV, and the help of sponsors and partners, we can buy an hour worth of time at 8 pm every Friday night and grow an audience, so that was the model we took and it’s making all the difference.
Do you sell more records through the TV show than through traditional record distribution?
Yes, the label has said that it’s been a pretty good game changer for them. Any authentic exposure of your music that you can get is a good thing. You know originally, I thought having hits on the radio was about music. It took me a long time to realize, it’s actually about exposure, and for us, television is a great platform for exposure as well.
Has having your own TV show revealed a market that labels have been ignoring or missing?
Yes, the country music industry is constantly pushing the envelope trying to get a younger demographic and so they push away all of those people they had before, in search of something else. There’s more to engaging a rural audience than just singing about beer and trucks and girls. A variety tv show like ours is another way to just another way to reach them.
Was “Play the Song” your way of taking a little jab at the industry?
“Play the Song” was written a couple years before we recorded it, for someone else to sing. It had more to do with artists not recording what they really want to record. I always felt that if you have a platform before you have a record deal, that shouldn’t change when you get a record deal. You shouldn’t have to tone it down to be politically correct. You might lose some audience, but you’re also going to attract the audience you want, that have a similar belief and heart that you have.
Has having your own TV show made things easier or has it presented a whole new set of unforeseen challenges that have made it more difficult?
I haven’t seen any challenges that make it more difficult. I only see it being easier, more fun and more effective.
When you and/or Joey write a song that you think is really strong, is it difficult to know whether to pitch it to the industry of cut it yourself?
No, if any of our songs got recorded by other artists, I’d just do a different song, or I’d do that song anyway. We don’t really hold on to songs.
At the time that you produced the two Blaine Larsen albums on Giantslayer/BNA, did you have aspirations of doing more producing?
No, I don’t really think that way. I just like exploring new ground. The whole concept of being a producer in the studio is a very small part of it for me. What I liked a lot more was figuring out how to A&R a project, finding out who the artist is and trying to make something that is uniquely him or her, and finding a way that it can rise above all the other things that are out there and create an opportunity for people to hear it. It was especially neat in Blaine’s case to find the right songs, go in the studio and record them, shoot our own music videos with our own money and then have it sell 350,000 copies, when the album only cost us $6,000 to make. That was fun. The real “producing” part that is a bigger thing for me has to do with, how do we turn that into an engaging product, that we can get to the masses. My responsibility is to try and find a way to get it out to the people. That’s the part that I enjoy the most. Producing an artist in the recording studio is only a small part of it for me, especially in the fast-moving internet world we all live in today. I’d probably be more apt to produce somebody’s television show or music video or a movie. I like the bigger picture.
How do you market your album on TV?
In the first season of the TV show, we decided to make the opening song of all 13 episodes, the 13 songs from our new album “His and Hers”, because we already had the album recorded and knew it was coming out around the same time. Most of the TV show audience probably doesn’t know our first 2 albums, so for Season 2, we’ll take some of the best songs from albums 1 and 2, and make them our opening songs for the show. And for the future, I have a feeling that having the TV show will affect the song selections on the next couple of albums.
Is time management the most challenging thing in your life, now that you also have a TV show to produce?
It’s not just having a TV show; it’s writing the show, filming the show and editing the show. I’m so involved with everything that when you add that to Joey and I touring, recording, writing and just living a normal life and being a part of our community, yes, time management is the number 1 struggle. I used to write 150 songs in a year, now I probably write a half dozen.
Did you & Joey have to give up anything along the way, to become successful?
I’ve always believed that you could be successful and do it in an honest real way. You don’t have to sacrifice your integrity or who you are or what you really love, so that you could sing what will make you successful. When Joey had a record deal with a big record label, when we first got married, I just can’t even explain how much conflict there was and the majority of it was because the people that were in charge of her career we’re saying things like “you can’t bring your husband to this or that because you need to appear single”, or “you can’t sing this or that kind of music because this is not what’s on the radio” and “you can’t have the old guy with the beard who plays with you now because you need to have a young cool band members.” I use to tell Joey, although at the time I couldn’t prove that it works, that I cannot believe that good choices and good people is an unsuccessful route. I’ve always believed that. If you have a lot of success and your marriage is gone, or if you have a lot of success and you jettison from your community and you go and live in some big gated community and your whole life and everything that mattered to you changes, you’ve failed.
As lead vocalist, did winning ACM Top New Vocal Duo make Joey feel as if she had finally arrived as an artist?
Joey’s funny because she’s somewhere between “arrived along time ago” and “still not arrived.” We felt honored to win an ACM award, and to be nominated for many CMA and ACMs, but honestly that’s not how Joey and I measure success. Success to us is still being madly in love with each other through all of this, it’s being good parents to our daughters even when we don’t get to see them as much as we used to, and it’s honoring our parents and our fans by being true to ourselves in every song we record and video we make.
With Joey, this TV show is accomplishing probably more of her goals because my wife wants to sing for people who want to hear her and still be a normal woman, with a normal life. And with the TV show, it’s working. Instead of having a diminishing career, where fans want you to sing the one big hit that you had, they fall in love with you and they want to hear you sing and tell stories for an hour. All of sudden you go from a diminishing crowd, that kind of goes down with less radio hits, to a crowd that’s come out of the woodwork. This way, you get to be yourself even more. The more she can be who she is and the more they care about listening to her sing, the happier she is.