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Backing a "Cheater" works for Joey + Rory

By John Lupton, November 2008

Early on a fall evening - Election Night - Joey Martin and husband Rory Feek are savoring their first night home in some time at their farm south of Nashville following a whirlwind radio tour in support of their debut Sugar Hill release "The Life of a Song" and the single from it, "Cheater Cheater," the song that sealed the deal for them as audience favorites on CMT's American Idol spin-off Can You Duet? this past spring where they finished third.

Though backed by a sterling cast and produced on the album by Carl Jackson, they continue to perform as a duet. "We're just acoustic right now, " Martin says, "We just have one guitar and two voices. It's a lot of fun and, for the most part, it's working out great, it's impactful that way, and people usually pay real close attention because there's not a lot of music going on as far as instrumentation. It's just a guitar and voices. It's been fun just to carry it on the road and, just off the cuff, bring out a song that we hadn't thought about in a long time that maybe Rory wrote or that we collaborate on and just wing it a lot of the time."

Although new to the national audience, neither were complete unknowns on the Nashville scene prior to the CMT experience. A native of Alexandria, Ind., Martin, 33, grew up singing professionally with her parents Jack and June, high school sweethearts who married on his return from Vietnam.

"We were kind of like The Judds, mom would sing harmony with me and some leads, and I knew at a really young age that's what I wanted to do." She pauses for emphasis. "And that's all I wanted to do, be a singer and move people, or try to anyway. I grew up listening to Dolly (Parton) and Patty (Loveless), and later on in life, Emmylou Harris."

Arriving in Nashville a few years after high school, she made ends meet as a veterinary technician, working with her other obsession - horses - and tried to break into the Music City circle, recording an album for Sony in 2001 that, by her own admission, "nothing really came of (it)."

Heart of the Wood

Raised in Atchison, Kan. in the northeast corner of the state, Feek, 43, says his father, Robert, was a railroad worker who moonlighted as a country singer. His real dream," Feek recalls, "was music and country music in particular, and that was his passion. So, from the time I was a little boy that was all he loved to do in his spare time was sing. He used to, when I was very, very young, like play in clubs and stuff like that, and my uncle had a band...but my dad, especially played just in his bedroom, singing Merle Haggard songs and Jim Reeves and Hank Thompson, things like that."

At the age of about 15, Feek taught himself to play guitar and began filling up 90-minute cassettes with songs taped off the radio, which he would meticulously transcribe. "I'd write every lyric out and figure out what the chords were...I think that's how I ended up writing songs, was when you're breaking all those songs down and you're writing the lyrics out with a pencil and a piece of paper you start looking at how it goes together, and it makes you start doing the same thing. That first year I started playing I was writing songs already, and that ended up being what I would consider my real gift."

After a stint in the Marine Corps as an avionics technician, that gift eventually led him to Nashville in the mid-'90s where he quickly landed a job working for the late, iconic songwriter Harlan Howard. "It was all I could hope that it would be. I'm one of those guys that I've always been drawn to the legends and to the people who have blazed this trail long before I was even born, and so when I got the chance to meet Harlan...I was thrilled, but even more so when I got to write for him and be in his company for five years and sort of study under him. He was a master craftsman at what we do, and he had a lot of wisdom not just for songwriting, but for life too. In that part of his life, he was always sharing it with me and everyone else around him. It was just an extraordinary time, and I think it's one of the things that's made me a much better writer."

Following Howard's passing in 2002, Rory wrote for Clint Black for a time before co-founding Giantslayer Publishing with friend and partner Tim Johnson. By the time the CMT show rolled around, he'd become a known quantity by having penned a healthy list of hits for the Music City elite, including chart toppers for Clay Walker ("The Chain of Love"), Collin Raye ("Someone You Used To Know") and Blake Shelton ("Some Beach").

On his own, with two young daughters to care for, Feek became a regular at the various songwriter sessions and open mikes in Nashville. At the venerable Bluebird Cafˇ one night, Martin recalls, she first set eyes on him.

"(It) was funny, I didn't know there were songwriter nights, I didn't know there were songwriters. I just figured the artists who sing the songs wrote them themselves, I was just real na•ve. But I went to the Bluebird one night, and Rory was playing in the round, and I didn't know anything about him...I just knew that he sang a song that was fixin' to be a single for Clay Walker called 'Chain of Love.' Every song that he would sing, everything that he talked about, the way he held himself, just everything, I fell in love with. I said to myself, 'That's the kind of man I'm gonna marry'."

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