After finishing in third place on the debut season of CMT’s pairs singing competition Can You Duet (behind winners Caitlin & Will and runners-up Nick Brownell/Jeremiah Richey), husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory signed on with one of roots music’s best labels (Sugar Hill) and released one of the year’s most critically acclaimed—and most unexpected—albums.
The Life of a Song mixed inside humor (“Play The Song”) with exquisite storytelling (“The Heart of the Wood”), a bluegrassy-romp (“Tune of a Twenty Dollar Bill”) and a hefty batch of delightfully traditional-sounding country music. The album even charted a minor hit with its lead single, “Cheater, Cheater,” which managed to squeak its way up to #30—even though many radio stations refused to play the song because it contained the word “ho.”
It was the album’s darker notes, however, that shined the brightest. “Sweet Emmylou” and “Rodeo” were devastatingly sad heartbreak ballads which Joey delivered with breathtaking emotion—and which added balance to an otherwise cheery album (even the duo’s downbeat take on “Free Bird” ended up a surprisingly soothing moment).
The pain-stricken soul the duo tapped into on those two songs is nowhere to be found on the aptly titled Album Number Two, however, and that leaves the album feeling a bit incomplete. Thankfully, that fact doesn’t derail an otherwise stellar sophomore effort that’s quite a bit more consistent than its predecessor.
Album Number Two may not have much to offer in the way of heartbreak, but it’s overflowing with heart.
Joey’s sweet, understated voice is as smooth and genuine as ever as she sings about faith, family and fans—the three elements that make up the bulk of the album’s material. When singing about life’s simple pleasures, as she does on “That’s Important To Me,” there may be no more compelling or convincing country singer. And few can pull off the role of a woman scorned, as she does on album highlight “God Help My Man,” with an equal measure of veracity.
Perhaps it’s because so much of her material deals with domestic issues, but when she threatens her cheatin’ husband with a “fryin’ pan upside the head,” you can’t help but believe she knows just where to apply the iron.
Even when she gets feisty, Joey Martin is still a comforting musical presence. Throughout the album, she sings with unrivaled sincerity, as if she’s trying to make you believe that whole line about country music being “three chords and the truth.” These songs aren’t especially pointed or weighty, but they never want for authenticity—as she sings about tough-to-break horses, good lookin’ cowboys or making church the place where you are, it’s easy to tell that she knows a thing or two about the topic at hand.
The last of those three topics is brought to life especially beautifully on the moving “Where Jesus Is.” Martin sounds stunning when she sings, “There were no steeples, there were no hymnals, but heaven came out/There were no suits, just worn out boots, standin’ on holy ground.”
As for his part of the equation, Rory takes up a little more of the spotlight this time than he did on the duo’s debut. He has a handful of vocal solos scattered throughout the album, and is the feature vocalist on “My Ol’ Man,” a simple but touching tribute to his father. Rory’s a surprisingly communicative singer, so his increased role adds depth, not distraction.
Album Number Two takes only a couples of missteps. “You Ain’t Right,” with lyrics that list reasons why you might just deserve a fryin’ pan upside the head after all, is obvious and preachy, while “This Song’s For You” (co-written by Rory and Zac Brown) not only fails, but fails spectacularly. (Are you struggling to keep food on your family’s table? Fret not, dear listener—this song’s for you!)
Without a song as attention-grabbing as “Cheater, Cheater,” Album Number Two will likely gain little mainstream notoriety. It doesn’t help that the first song released from the project is easily its worst, so disconnected from the duo’s music that it gives no indication of what’s contained on the album.
Fans of the duo from the first go-round, however (or those lucky enough to discover them in spite of what’s certain to be paltry media attention), will find a gem of a country album—one that’s flush with very good songs performed by one of the genre’s tragically underappreciated singers.