Naomi Judd, one-half of country’s mega-successful duo The Judds, served as a judge on Country Music Television's recently aired talent contest for duo partners. From the get-go, husband-and-wife contestants Joey and Rory, with their melodic, traditional-country sound and obvious affection for one another, were her favorite duo to champion.
“No matter what anyone tells you,” Judd told Joey and Rory after one CMT performance, “never change what you’re doing.” And the Tennessee-based singing partners took heed.
“That was the moment that cemented (the collaboration) for us,” recalled Rory, an established hit-country songwriter prior to earning a spot on “Can You Duet” with wife Joey.
Even though the down-to-earth couple—Joey, with her soft-spoken way and stunning natural beauty, and Rory, with his now-trademark overalls and endearing humble demeanor—didn’t take the grand prize at the show’s close, they did manage to earn the runner-up spot and land their own recording contract with Vanguard/Sugar Hill Records.
Released Oct. 30, under the Joey + Rory moniker, the dozen-tune CD, “Life of a Song,” contains seven tracks written by the duo, including the album’s first single and country-music video, “Cheater, Cheater,” which recently climbed to No. 39 on the Country National Airplay chart of Radio & Records and to No. 41 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart. (It also became an Internet phenomenon following the duo's performance debut of the tune on the CMT talent show.)
Prior to their CMT-launched duet success, the couple had pursued country careers independently for years and auditioned for the hit series only upon the strong urging of a friend. But when they took the “Can You Duet” stage as a duo and garnered overwhelming audience praise and encouragement from the show’s judges, they knew they were best as a team both off and on stage.
“When I came to town in ‘95, I put all my singing dreams away,” remarked Rory, a native of Kansas, reflecting on his move to Nashville. “I quickly realized it was a beauty contest, and it was a game I wasn’t willing to play, and one I wouldn’t win.”
From that point on, Rory said he focused on making a career as a songwriter and he found his first job penning songs for legendary songsmith Harlan Howard’s publishing company.
Since then, he's written several hits for other country artists, including the No. 1 singles “Some Beach” by Blake Shelton, Clay Walker's “The Chain of Love” and Collin Raye's “Someone You Used To Know.”
Indiana-born Joey, meanwhile, had long pursued a career in country music as a solo artist. Influenced vocally by Dolly Parton and Connie Smith, she secured a record deal with Sony Records, cut an album for the label but it was never released.
“His songs felt like home,” Joey recalled of Rory’s original music, rich in storytelling and in praise of life’s simple joys. “That first night I saw him playing at the Bluebird Cafe, he was speaking my language. Those were the only kinds of songs I wanted to sing.”
With their debut album, which was produced by Grammy-winner Carl Jackson (who’s also worked with Merle Haggard and Alison Krauss) now available to listeners, Joey + Rory is an act whose all-new country music is built on respect for the traditional country music of yore.
“We’ve been writing songs about our lives together for the last few years, and this is perfect timing because we have songs that are uniquely ours. We’re not just telling a story, but telling our story,” Rory has said.
“This (music and album) is a special part of our lives and love story,” he continued, “(and) … the reason we have the plus sign between our names is because at first it was Joey. Add me in there, and the combination just feels right I guess.
“You know, it’s great to do what you love for a living, but it’s a whole different game to get to do it with the one you love,” Rory observed.
Lisa Rollins is a mass communication professor at MTSU and is the director of Special Media Projects in the university’s News and Public Affairs office.