Snug at home in Tennessee during a lull between Christmas shows in Las Vegas and New York, Joey Martin and Rory Feek are reveling in the domestic joys of the holiday.
Actually, Joey is making Rory a cheeseburger — and he’s reveling in the thought of eating it. Now and again, she joins her husband on the phone to help him explain how Joey & Rory‘s A Farmhouse Christmas — the stage show and the album — came into being.
Feek says they started working on the Christmas collection when they were “about half way through” recording their plainly-titled Album No. 2, which came out in 2010.
“The release of that album ended up being a lot later than anyone expected,” he explains, “so we kind of had to shelve [A Farmhouse Christmas] for about a year before we started working on it again.”
Feek was best known as a songwriter until he was persuaded to sing publicly with his wife on CMT’s talent competition series, Can You Duet , in 2008.
They came in third in this talent contest but were such fan favorites, they quickly won a contract with Sugar Hill Records. Their first album, The Life of a Song, rolled out in October 2008.
Feek wrote or co-wrote four of the 12 songs on A Farmhouse Christmas, and Martin contributed to one. There are only two traditional selections: “Blue Christmas” and “Away in a Manger.”
The rest are more modern takes on the season, including Merle Haggard‘s doleful “If We Make It Through December.” But the prevailing mood is good humor, notably through such mildly salacious vehicles as Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy’s “I Know What Santa’s Getting for Christmas” and Shawn Camp and Brice Long’s “Come Sit on Santa Claus’ Lap.”
There are even a couple of songs that acknowledge how exhausting the whole celebratory process can be: Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers’ “What the Hell (It’s the Holidays)” and “Another Wonderful Christmas” from Feek, Martin, Tim Johnson and James Slater.
The most serene and poetic moments in the collection come from Stephanie Davis via her devotional tale, “The Gift,” and her Western winter wonderland description in “The Diamond O.”
Originally, Sugar Hill planned to offer an extended version of the album through iTunes and Walmart that would include four bonus tracks, but those deals never materialized.
It wasn’t until they’d completed the album that it occurred to them it might be developed into a full-fledged stage show.
“I’ve always loved the idea that instead of just a concert filled with songs, [we'd have] a stage show where it’s all pretty well scripted out,” Feek says. “You’ve got everything together and you’re telling a story.
“This was the first time we had a chance to do that. The whole concept ended up being that we would just take our farmhouse on tour with us. It’s been fun.”
Feek and Martin live in a farmhouse in Pottsville, Tenn., that was built in the 1870s.
The show, Martin points out, “is not completely synched up to the order [songs appear] on the album. Every night we do things a little different. We kind of just feed off the crowd and see how they’re feeling and how we’re feeling.”
The backdrop for the show is a huge photo of the farmhouse living room.
“We would have loved to have made it a little more 3-D and brought in a Christmas tree and a little mantel,” says Feek. “The whole idea is [we're] kind of telling stories from our living room.”
Joey & Rory travel with a four-piece band, plus their daughter, Heidi, who sings harmony.
“The majority of the shows we try to do in theaters or ballroom-type situations,” says Martin. “But, for the most part, they’re listening rooms or they’re cabaret seatings. It is a listening crowd — the kind of setup where everyone’s really paying attention.”
“This is something we’d love to grow,” Feek adds, “so that it’s not just this year but something we do a little bit bigger next year.”
“We’ve enjoyed this experience so much that it’s really going to make us think how we treat all of our shows — outside of this Christmas show,” Martin says. “It’s felt so good to do it this way. Our music and what we do is storytelling.”
“I’m pretty sure that Christmas [touring] every year will be A Farmhouse Christmas,” Feek says. “That’s something that won’t change.”
The album Joey & Rory have just completed — their fourth for Sugar Hill — is a concept project, Feek reports. “It’s called His & Hers. That [title] came from a song that I wrote. It’s kind of like an old Tammy Wynette song, a really, really neat old-school tune that I wrote with a girl named Erin Enderlin.
“Joey knew she wanted to record it. And from there, she had the idea to title the album His & Hers. On this record, we went in and cut six songs with Joey singing and six songs with me singing. So it will be quite a departure from what we’ve normally got on our other albums, where either I didn’t sing or I just did one song.”
The album includes only one cover tune.
“I had to talk my bride into it,” Feek says with evident pride. “She wasn’t familiar with it. But one of the songs I sing is Tom T. Hall‘s ‘Your Man Loves You, Honey.’ It sounds so good. I’m tickled to death to have a Tom T. Hall song on our record. We haven’t even told him yet.”
“Rory’s delivery is great on it,” Martin asserts. Hall had a Top 5 hit with the song in 1977.
Gary Paczosa, who produced all but one of the songs on A Farmhouse Christmas, also produced the forthcoming album.
Feek estimates that by year’s end the duo will have done 13 or 14 Christmas shows.
When it comes to visual trademarks, Feek is known as the guy who always dresses in bib overalls, regardless of the occasion.
He says there’s no big story behind the costume.
“I’m from Kansas, and that was something everybody wore, and they still do a lot,” he explains. “I was here in Nashville — I moved here in ’95 — and I think I just wore regular jeans the first four or five years.
“Then, somewhere along the line, I put on a pair of overalls, and I just loved how they felt. As a songwriter and also where I was in my life — this was before Joey came along — I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m just going to wear these all the time.’
“It was kind of like what Forrest Gump said — ‘One less thing.’ I didn’t have worry about it. … It wasn’t about how you looked any more. You just settled into being you. … When I met Joey, that’s what I was wearing, and I’ve never changed.
“When Joey and I got on the TV show, I thought that [style of dress] was going to be a really bad thing. I was expecting at any moment that their wardrobe people were going to make a big deal, and I was going to be embarrassed. … Instead, they recognized that it was unique and part of our brand. So they let me continue wearing them, and that’s how everybody got to know us.”
“He doesn’t even wear sweat pants,” Martin interjects. “It’s either overalls or underwear.”