Had it not been for that one extra twist of the cosmic kaleidoscope, Joey Martin and Rory Feek might never have been musically conjoined into Joey & Rory -- and country fans would have been denied one of the sweetest-singing duos since the Judds.
That crucial twist, of course, was the CMT TV series, Can You Duet. It wasn't a break they saw coming.
Feek, 43, was a hit songwriter and producer and quite content to remain so. Martin, his 33-year-old wife, once had designs on a solo singing career but had pretty much put those ambitions on the back burner of the restaurant she was helping operate. The two rarely sang together, even at home.
"I don't think it would have occurred to us to sing together," says Feek, when he and Martin call in from San Jose, Calif., where they're promoting their first album, The Life of a Song. "It's sort of obvious why. She's beautiful, and she's so talented in her own right. She has such an amazing voice she doesn't really need anything else with her. . . . I may be a really good songwriter, but I wouldn't add any star appeal."
On the new album, released on Sugar Hill Records, Martin sings all the leads, but Feek's harmonies add emotional heft in all the right places. Grammy-winner Carl Jackson produced the project, enlisting the aid of such renowned studio wizards as Rob Ickes, Aubrey Haynie, Bryan Sutton and Ilya Toshinsky.
In various co-writing configurations, Feek and Martin have their stamp on seven of the album's 12 songs, including the steaming and hissing lead single, "Cheater, Cheater." The CD has been selling an average of 6,000 copies a week since its release in late October. Not bad for a new act on an independent label.
The songs are uniformly engaging, whether conjuring up the consoling spirit of Emmylou Harris ("Sweet Emmylou"), giving radio a richly deserved smack ("Play the Song"), mourning an abrupt loss ("To Say Goodbye") or puzzling over a destructive obsession ("Rodeo").
A native of Kansas, Feek moved to Nashville with his two daughters in 1995 after he had pulled an eight-year hitch in the Marines. While serving in Japan, he played in a country band that toured the American military bases in the region. He began performing solo after he left the Marines and settled in Dallas.
Still, his eye was primarily on songwriting once he relocated to Music City. He broke into the business, he says, by "stalking" the man who was then the dean of Nashville songwriters, Harlan Howard.
"A friend told me that Harlan was going to be at Sunset Grill [restaurant] at such-and-such time," Feek recalls. "So I went over there and sat down on a barstool and waited." An hour or so later, Howard came in, took a seat beside Feek and the two talked songwriting for hours. Howard invited Feek to visit him at his nearby office and play some songs he'd written. Several months afterward, Howard signed Feek to a songwriting deal, and Feek stayed with the company for the next five years.
Martin grew up in Indiana. "When I was a little girl, my mom and dad and I would travel around to local venues and perform for different functions," she says. Later on, she joined a band that "really wasn't on a professional level" but at least enabled her to perform occasionally.
Modest though these beginnings were, Martin came to Nashville with the goal of becoming a recording artist. At first, she supported herself by working for a veterinarian clinic that specialized in treating horses. She still loves horses and the cowboy lore that goes with them, as the new album makes clear.
Around 2001, Sony signed Martin to a recording contract and selected veteran producers Paul Worley and Billy Crain to oversee her first (and last) album for the label. "I had been in Nashville about two years, and I knew nothing about the [music] industry," Martin confesses.
"I really never found all the great songs [for the album] I was hoping to," she continues. "Halfway through making the record, Rory and I met, and we got married probably within four months of meeting." The album was completed in 2002 but never released nor were any singles from it.
"Looking back, it's nothing I would record today," Martin says. "But at the time, I was really proud of it."
The newlyweds were also fearful that the activities involved in promoting the album might hurt their marriage. "I was actually scared to death of that part of the industry," Feek admits, "very scared to be married to a woman who was a singer because of the terrible stories. I was very nervous about it, so I asked Joey questions.
"Then Joey would go in [to Sony] and ask questions, just commonsense questions to make sure our marriage could stay intact while she was busy doing radio tours and setting up the album. They did not respond well to these questions at all."
Feek hit pay dirt in 1998 via Collin Raye's recording of his song, "Someone You Used to Know." It was Feek's first cut and it went to No. 3 in Billboard. The following year, he scored another chart triumph with "Chain of Love" for Clay Walker.
Then he had cuts for Kenny Chesney, Waylon Jennings, Randy Travis, Charley Pride, Reba McEntire and others. He racked up a No. 1 in 2004 with Blake Shelton's "Some Beach." He also produced an album for Blaine Larsen that same year and co-wrote Larsen's biggest hit, "How Do You Get That Lonely." Feek is a founding partner of the Giantslayer Music publishing company.
"I moved to Nashville to be a singer," says Martin. "I wasn't into [song] writing at all. I didn't understand the concept of it. At one of the songwriters' nights I went to, Rory was playing. I was just really, really moved by him in particular -- the way he wrote and what he wrote about. I think it was then and there that I understood how important songwriting is."
Feek sees himself as the ideal musical complement to his wife -- and vice versa. "I'm like her perfect songwriter," he says. "What I write is exactly what she wants to say and the style that she wants to sing. On the other hand, the way she sings and how she interprets songs is so much my dream kind of a singer."
With her career essentially on hold, Martin opened a restaurant last year with Feek's sister in Pottsville, Tenn., and continues to work there when she and her husband aren't on the road.
John Bohlinger, the bandleader for Nashville Star and one of Feek's co-writers, initially urged Martin to try out as a solo act for that show. Then, as plans for Can You Duet emerged, he pitched the idea of the two singing together for the newer series.
Feek says Martin was considerably more open to auditioning for Duet than he was. "It was like my worst nightmare -- imagining being on TV," he says. "But I also knew if we were together it would be just like we were singing at our kitchen table. You can't lose doing that. So we decided to try out."
Toward that end, Feek bought an $800 video camera and, with help from a visiting cousin, shot a seven-minute audition clip that introduced himself, his wife and their rural lifestyle.
They delivered the clip (along with a batch of homemade "sticky buns") to the show's producer and, voila, the duo of Joey & Rory was born.
"We all said in advance that the best thing that could happen to us [on the show] would be to make it all the way through but not win," Feek says. "It seems like if you win, then you don't have any control. Of course, when we got near the end, we really wanted to win. We all got caught up in it."
Joey & Rory came in third, but by the end of the season, they had acquired a sizable fan base, as well as a very vocal champion in series judge Naomi Judd. The exposure also landed the duo a high profile endorsement deal with Overstock.com.
Perhaps the biggest prize, at least from Feek's point of view, was that the show gave him and his wife of six years their first chance to be alone for any length of time. In keeping with Can You Duet rules, contestants were sequestered in the plush Opryland Hotel for six weeks while the show was being taped.
"I was a single dad for about 12 years," Feek says "Last winter was the very first time we were by ourselves, Joey and me. I've never been by myself. I've always had the kids." (Feek's daughters, now 20 and 22, have departed the family farm for the bright lights of Nashville.)
Feek says he long ago lost interest in being a solo recording artist. Martin feels the same. "It's kind of a grueling task to be in a different city every night," she observes. "I can't imagine doing this by myself. I just think it would be very lonely and very tough on a marriage. This is the ideal situation."
Her devoted husband agrees: "It's busy already, but it's supposed to be busy. We know that. But we're together, and we don't feel like we have much room to complain."