The most striking thing about watching Joey Feek sing was how effortlessly comfortable she appeared on stage. That could have been because she sang in a duo with her husband, Rory Feek. Or maybe that’s just where she was born to be.
“Joey’s a singer. She’s got a gift. She just opens her mouth and the world moves,” Rory once said about his wife. “At least, mine does.”
They were Joey + Rory, a Grammy-nominated country duo who got their big break appearing on CMT’s reality competition “Can You Duet?” in 2008. Country music fans knew them as a couple.
That helps explain the public outpouring when Rory confirmed that Joey, 40, died on Friday after a battle with cancer. During the last months of Joey’s life, Rory chronicled heartbreaking updates of his wife saying goodbye to loved ones. Media outlets around the world picked up the story. Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer in June 2014, a few months after she gave birth to their first child together, a girl they named Indiana for Joey’s home state. In October 2015, Rory wrote that Joey’s cancer was terminal and she was going to stop treatment.
Doctors gave them an estimate of how much time Joey had left. Rory said that they went home and threw out the calendar.
“So we don’t have forever. We’ve got right now,” he wrote as they struggled to process the devastating news. “And that’s enough.”
Every sappy, cliche phrase (they complete each other, they’re stronger together than apart) actually seemed true with Joey and Rory, married since 2002. It wasn’t until they combined their talents that they broke out into mainstream success. Joey was the singer, signed and then dropped by Sony. Rory worked behind the scenes in Nashville as a songwriter. When they became Joey + Rory, people paid attention.
The deeply religious couple released eight studio albums: Their final record, “Hymns That Are Important to Us,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart in February. The couple received their first Grammy nomination two months prior: best country duo/group performance for the song “If I Needed You.” They have also been nominated for vocal duo of the year at various country award shows, winning the prize at the 2010 Academy of Country Music Awards. You could easily spot them on the red carpet thanks to Rory in his signature overalls.
Many of their songs were about love and faith. So in an amusing twist, their biggest radio hit was the saucy “Cheater, Cheater,” in which a woman grills her husband about his affair: “Tell me cheater, cheater, where’d you meet that no-good, white-trash ho?”
“It’s a little edgier than what I normally sing, or what we normally would do,” Joey laughed during a “Can You Duet?” on-camera interview. “I like the attitude that this song has. Because if something like that were to happen, if someone were trying to get after my man, I’d be after them pretty hard.”
Joey Martin Feek was born in Alexandria, Ind., to Jack and June Martin. People noticed her impressive singing ability when she was young as she and her parents would sing at venues around the small town, about an hour north of Indianapolis. She told CMT that her family was “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 said.
Influenced by singers from Dolly Parton to Patty Loveless, Joey moved to Nashville in her early 20s. She worked at a horse veterinary clinic to pay the bills until she signed a deal with Sony. The label paired her with some big-name producers to record her debut album, according to CMT, but it was never released.
Right around then, she met Rory. The two first crossed paths when Joey spotted Rory at a songwriter night at the famed Bluebird Cafe. He caught her eye, though they didn’t see each other again for another two years. By then, the chemistry was instantaneous. They dated only for a few months before tying the knot in June 2002, moving to a farm in Middle Tennessee.
Rory, who grew up in Kansas and served in the Marines before arriving in Nashville, had two daughters from a previous marriage, Heidi and Hopie. He hit it big as a songwriter with No. 1 hits like Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach” and Easton Corbin’s “A Little More Country Than That,” the success of which helped the couple “put a new tin roof on our farmhouse.”
After they were married, Joey recorded a solo album and released it through a small record label that Rory co-founded. But by 2007, she was discouraged by the lack of progress with her singing career. She opened a restaurant with her sister-in-law called Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, waking up at 3:30 a.m. every day to make baked goods.
Fate intervened: Rory’s songwriter friend got in touch and told them CMT was casting for a new reality competition centered on country duos called “Can You Duet?” The friend encouraged the couple to apply. Rory said as a songwriter, the thought of singing on stage (on TV, no less) was terrifying. Still, they decided to go for it, dropping off a submission tape to producers along with some pecan sticky buns from Marcy Jo’s.
Producers were sold. Soon, they became Joey + Rory. They placed third on the show in spring 2008 and landed a record deal. Their first record, “The Life of a Song,” debuted as a Top 10 country album and “Cheater, Cheater” cracked the Top 30. Subsequent singles didn’t make much of an impact, and after the third album, the couple parted ways with the label.
Still, they maintained a niche following and went on to record more albums. They had their own TV show on RFD-TV, a cable channel marketed to rural areas.
In February 2014, the couple took a break from touring when Joey gave birth to daughter Indiana Boon. Rory detailed the baby’s home birth on his blog, called This Life I Live. A month later, doctors told them Indiana had Down syndrome.
Rory wrote often of the challenges of raising a child with special needs. But their blog went viral in October 2015 when he confirmed Joey’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Last month, when doctors said Joey had days left to live, he updated his blog and said his wife’s goal was to make it to their daughter’s second birthday in mid-February. After that, he said, “she was ready to stop fighting.”
“In the 40 short years that Joey has lived, my bride has accomplished many great things… she’s lived a very full life,” Rory wrote on their website Feb. 29. “One of the last things Joey said before she drifted into the deep sleep she’s been in for a few days now is, ‘I have no regrets… I can honestly say, that I have done everything I wanted to do and lived the life I always wanted to live.'”