january 2009

Yes, They Can Duet. And How.

By David McGee

Joey + Rory
Sugar Hill

Even those fervent fans that were suitably impressed by the husband-wife duo of Joey Martin and Rory Feek on the CMT series Can You Duet could not have anticipated a debut album so completely compelling as The Life of a Song (released Oct. 28, 2008). Produced by Grammy winning veteran Carl Jackson, played by an exemplary crop of the finest of the new Nashville cats (including household names in fiddler Aubrey Haynie; Rob Ickes on dobro, lap steel and Weisenborn guitar; and Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar) and boasting a crop of first-rate original songs (seven of the 12 tracks bear one or the other or both of the principals' songwriting credit, Feek already having three #1 singles under his belt as a writer, including Clay Walker's "The Chain of Love," Blake Shelton's "Some Beach" and Collin Raye's "Someone You Used to Know"), The Life of the Song's X factor, the big unknown that makes the difference between a serviceable effort and a stunning one, is the expressive, soulful, deep country voice of Joey Martin, who immediately takes her place as one of the finest female vocalists of the day. There's not a smidgen of affectation in her sultry drawl or in the gentle ache and moving tenderness she brings to the quiet moments here. This is not to discount the appeal of Feek's expressive tenor harmonies, either, but it's Martin's leads that make the whole endeavor soar. (FYI: This is Martin's debut in partnership with her husband, but it's not her first record. In 2005 she cut a solo album, Strong Enough To Cry, which was never released but is now available on Joey + Rory's website at http://www.shipped2you.com/CD-Strong-Enough.html.)

Case in point: a couple of songs about feckless spouses, which just happen to fall back-to-back on the disc. "Cheater Cheater" is a full-on sprint of a diatribe aimed at straying husband who's cavorting with a "no-good white trash ho," the catch being that Martin aims her enmity at both parties in the affair, as the music storms and stomps behind her, with Haynie antying up the drama with his feverish bowing. Immediately following, though, is "Rodeo." "Rodeo"? Yes. In this melancholy lament, its tearful ambiance enhanced by Ickes's always atmospheric dobro cries, Martin mourns the loss of her man to the rodeo circuit, in what may be the first such song actually charging a steer with alienation of affection, to wit: "you steal this love from me eight seconds at a time/even when I'm in his arms I know you're still on his mind/rodeo, are you ever going to let me cowboy go/you've got a hundred other men/you don't give a damn about him." Here! Here! Guess these songs serve to point up how fragile love can be, buffeted as it is by all manner of temptations. Love of another type is honored softly and tenderly, you might say, in "Heart of the Wood," a tune penned in part by former Derailer turned preacher, Tony Villanueva. Accompanied only by Feel's lightly strummed acoustic guitar, Martin takes a heartfelt lead, with Feek providing an appealing contrast to her sensitivity with his ringing tenor harmony, heightening the impact of a song reflecting on a grandfather's love and wisdom, as conveyed to the younger generation in his reflections on trees he chopped down in his own youth. The wood became a family home, a guitar, and a landmark pointing the way home, "just like the cross"—making something of greater import out of a seemingly mundane chore. But when it's time to get down and feel good, Joey + Rory deliver in grand fashion, via the high stepping bluegrass barnburner courtesy the Lonesome River Band's "Tune of a Twenty Dollar Bill," an occasion for a fine strutting duet vocal but also for some jaw dropping speed-of-light solos from Haynie, Ickes, and Carl Jackson himself on banjo. And for all that sturm und drang attending the husband's faithlessness earlier on, check out the unconditional love expressed in the lyrics of Martin and Feek's "Loved the Hell," a love song in which the wife gives the husband a pass when he stays out all night partying because "I just the love the hell out of him," as Martin sings softly and expressively. Men, this is the woman we've been looking for all along. And if this were not enough, the pair has the audacity to cover "Free Bird"—yes, that "Free Bird." They don't try to take on Skynyrd, however, but instead configure the southern rock classic as a bluegrass-tinged ballad, offering it slow and deliberate, caressing the lyrics as dobro, mandolin and piano enhance the swirling ambiance around the vocals. It surges every so slightly where you expect it to, but instead of taking flight, if you will, the musicians proceed with compelling restraint behind Ickes's soloing, buttressed by the slightest interjection of electric guitar and mandolin fills . Can Joey + Rory do no wrong? Not on The Life Of a Song, not by a long shot.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024