Inside Rory and Joey Feek's Heartwarming, Heartbreaking Love Story

Married musical duo weren't widely known outside the country scene until they opened up about Joey's battle with cervical cancer; remembering the singer on what would have been her 42nd birthday

By Natalie Finn Sep 09, 2017 1:00 PMTags

Rory Feek always knew his wife Joey Feek had the voice of an angel, but it wasn't until they had been married for almost six years that they put two and two together.

Or one plus one, that is.

"I don't think it would have occurred to us to sing together," Rory told CMT News in 2008, chatting from the road while he and Joey were out promoting The Life of a Song, their first album as the duo Joey + Rory. "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."

And so Rory, who's penned tunes recorded by the likes of Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney and Reba McEntire, was happy to take a step back and let Joey take center stage—though he was right next to her every step of the way.

They finished third on the CMT series Can You Duet and, though they didn't win, they became the most commercially successful act from the show's first season, touring and churning out seven albums. Sadly, their time together was cut short in March 2016 when Joey died of cervical cancer, a month after Joey + Rory's final album, Hymns That Are Important to Us, debuted atop the U.S. country chart. She was 40.

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Rory, who also has two grown daughters from a previous marriage, became a single dad to their now 3-year-old daughter Indiana. Joey was first diagnosed with cancer in May 2014, three months after Indiana was born, and barely five months after Rory found out his 71-year-old mother had cancer as well. It was on that day, Jan. 6, 2014, with Joey's encouragement, that Rory started keeping his blog This Life I Live, which he has been updating ever since. It was where he joyously announced their daughter's birth and where he would soon after start chronicling Joey's cancer battle.

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And after she was gone, he started writing about their 13 years together, a fairy-tale love story full of devotion to family and faith.

Having that outlet surely served as a solace for him, a cathartic way to share their journey with others who might have needed reminding that they weren't alone, and later to keep Joey's memory alive.

The Kansas native served in the Marines for eight years before ultimately moving to Nashville in 1995 to pursue songwriting. He got his first big monetary break in 1998 when Collin Raye recorded his "Someone You Used to Know" and word got around. He continued to pen hits, scoring his first No. 1 with Shelton's "Some Beach," and co-founded the publishing house Giantslayer Music.  

Joey (born Joey Martin, in Alexandria, Ind.) moved to Nashville in 1998 to be a singer, working for a veterinary clinic to pay the bills. She was signed by Sony in 2001 but her debut album, Strong Enough to Cry, was never released. The good news was, she fell in love.

"Halfway through making the record, Rory and I met, and we got married probably within four months of meeting," she told CMT News.

Joey actually first laid eyes on Rory when she saw him play at a songwriters' night at the Bluebird Café and knew, right then and there, that he was the one for her. However, a couple songs in, he introduced his daughters to the crowd and she assumed he was married.

Two years passed before Joey heard that Rory, whom she knew by then was a single dad who had raised his then-teenage daughters on his own, was going to be playing another songwriters night, and she decided she had to go. "After that night, it was over for me," she said in an interview with Bill Gaither on their DVD Inspired, which came out after their 2013 album Inspired: Songs of Faith and Family.

Their first date was on Valentine's Day and he proposed two months later. They tied the knot on June 15, 2002, and their reception was at Pearl's Palace, upstairs from Lumpy's restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, Tenn.—the spot where they finally met. Rory's first memory of Joey was of her bounding up their stairs and introducing herself to him.

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Rory had his reservations, though, about settling down with a recording artist.

"I was actually scared to death of that part of the industry," he told CMT, "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."

The couple settled down in the farmhouse Rory had bought in 1999 in Pottsville, Tenn., and Joey put music on the backburner when she opened a restaurant with Feek's sister, Marcy Jo's Mealhouse and Bakery—baking being another of Joey's loves.

But she never quit singing. Fellow songwriter John Bohlinger, who was the bandleader for Nashville Star (the show that helped launch Miranda Lambert's career), told Joey she should try out, but then once he got wind of Can You Duet, he encouraged Joey and Rory to pair up.

"It was like my worst nightmare—imagining being on TV," Rory recalled. "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."

They sent their audition tape and a batch of sticky buns to producers and made the cut. "We all said in advance that the best thing that could happen to us would be to make it all the way through but not win," Rory told CMT. "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."

Months after finishing just shy of the prize and releasing their debut single "Cheater, Cheater," they were across the country promoting The Life of a Song.

"It's kind of a grueling task to be in a different city every night," Joey said. "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."

"I'm like her perfect songwriter," Rory observed. "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."

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In 2010 they won Top New Vocal Duo of the Year at the ACM Awards and that September released their sophomore album, Album Number Two, which featured the single "This Song's for You," cowritten by Rory and Zac Brown.

That October they treated a writer from The Boot to one of Joey's home-cooked meals at their farm and it was apparent to her how much the couple liked being just...home, together.

"We just like our life a lot," Rory said. "There's a weird thing where we're trying to figure out what's super important and what's not...a lot of people think everything's super important, but a lot of the reason I try to learn to be good on video editing, and Photoshop and web development, is so we can do as much from here as we can without ever leaving.

"Everyone in the music business is so worried that it might go away, and when you're worried it might go away, I think that's part of making it go away. But for us, if it goes away, we get to stay here more—OK, we're good with that. Honestly, just having hit songs or being a success is not the end all to us. We want to play music as a married couple and just live our lives and not worry about that. The heart of us is our kids and our marriage and our you have to come out here to really know us. We're just a married couple who like to do music and sing."

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They even converted their barn into a concert hall so they could have fans come to them as well.

"Very rarely do we ever get into any kind of argument," Joey said in Inspired. "We just really admire one another, we respect one another, we love one another. But most of all, we know that God had a plan for us to be together."

After Joey was first diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, she underwent surgery to remove the growth, but it came back and they found out it had spread to her colon in June 2015, making it stage 4.

While Joey was outside tending to her garden, Rory wrote, "There are many things that are very important to my wife, and those things never change, they never waver. Not through good times or bad times, not through tears or joy. She knows what the good stuff in life is and she reaches for it and pushes away the things that don't matter. She's always been this way. I wish I was more like her… and that it came easy to me. I have to work at it. It's just part of her… like breathing air, or loving Indy.

"One of the first songs we ever wrote together was about the things that are important to her, and now 13 years after writing it… day in and day out, those things that were important to her, still are."

In November 2015 Rory revealed that Joey was receiving hospice care at home.


After she died, on March 4, 2016, loved ones gathered in the converted barn where Joey and Rory used to perform to say goodbye. Joey was buried among the sassafras trees shading the cemetery at the farm, where Rory's mother had been laid to rest in 2014 and where also lay members of the family who built the farm in the 1800s. 

"Joey and I believed that God would give us a great story," Rory, wearing his trademark overalls, said in his eulogy at his wife's funeral. "Not just a great story to tell, but a great story to live, and he has."

"A great story is not just a happy story filled with only joy," he continued. "That's not a story, not really. You must have low points to understand and appreciate the high points you get to experience in life."

And then he got to work. On their wedding anniversary last year, June 15, Rory prepared coffee for two and talked to his wife at her grave site, marked by a wooden cross. He also announced that he was working on a documentary, composed of all the home movies he started shooting a few weeks before Indiana was born in 2014. 

"This whole experience of making the film has been incredible because I get to see Joey every day," he told CBS News in September 2016, just ahead of the release of To Joey, With Love

Noting how, five months after her death, he still didn't feel ready to accept the loss, Rory said, "That's the biggest thing I struggle with, I still walk around thinking, 'She's really not here? She's really not coming back?'"

Asked if he was writing music, he simply said, "No. I don't want to be on a stage without her, that's what I'm thinking about right now...She loved to be on stage performing and I loved to stand next to her. I had the best seat in the house to watch the world discover my wife."

But her memory lives on, through Rory and their daughter, and through the music she left behind. In a most bittersweet posthumous tribute, Hymns That Are Important to Us won the Grammy this past February for Best Roots Gospel Album. In April, Rory shepherded the release of If Not for You, the newly re-titled solo album Joey first made 16 years ago. 

And though he still wasn't ready to perform without Joey, this weekend Rory organized a benefit show, "Once Upon a Farm," at his concert hall at the farm, with all proceeds from ticket sales going to Music Health Alliance. Night two is tonight, what would have been Joey's 42nd birthday, and in addition to telling stories about his wife and their life together, Rory will be singing.