Rodney Atkins’ “It’s America,” which he debuted on last month’s CMA Awards broadcast, is presumptuous and without substance. More importantly, it makes poor use of subjective personal pronouns.
The first single from Atkins’ upcoming project, “It’s America” boasts a chorus that rattles off a list of very pleasant nostalgia meant to conjure the warm and fuzzies in all of us country bumpkins, with all of “it” finally climaxing into the supposedly lump-in-throat-inducing catch phrase “it’s America.”
But wait…what’s America? What is the “it” that supposedly represents this nation of millions? Is “it” really, as the song suggests, “A man on the moon?” Think about that: A man on the moon is America. That sentence doesn’t even make sense.
And that is exactly why this song represents both the worst of contemporary country music and the worst of contemporary patriotism. It’s not because of bad grammar (a crime all its own), but because here syntax and meaning have both been displaced by symbolism. The actual words don’t mean two shakes of a dog’s tail. The “it” Atkins is singing about has nothing to do with Springsteen or lemonade stands or technological advances or anything else mentioned in the lyrics—these things are only tokens meant to reaffirm an image of what some consider the pure America, the wholesome America, or the ideal America. It is not a song meant to define what America “is,” it’s a song meant to reinforce what a slice of the population already believes—that “real” Americans are essentially the same, that there is some set of “core American values,” and that patriotism means never complaining, never asking questions, and never challenging the ideas we’ve acquired through our political socialization.
It doesn’t matter that the “it” in “It’s America” doesn’t mean anything, because we’re not supposed to actually turn our brains on and think about what’s coming out of Atkins’ mouth. “Just listen to the song and enjoy it,” people will say. Or, “It’s just a song.” The reaction it is meant to elicit is a gut reaction—“it” is what we believe to be true because of what we feel, not because of what we know. “It” is what makes us say, “America is the best country in the world, dadgummit.” And if the song were boiled down to its elemental parts, if most of it were removed or altered, it would not make a single bit of difference, because what matters is not what “it” is, but what “it” represents. Atkins could be singing about high school football games, hanging out at the lake on a long hot summer day, or two old men playing checkers at the courthouse square (none of which appear here)—it doesn’t matter, because the images utilized are only relevant in that they serve as confirmations.
But it isn’t just a song. And it isn’t harmless. It’s a three and half minute message that’s going to be blasted into millions of homes and cars from coast to coast for the next three months or more. And to imply or expect that we shouldn’t think about what it means (and doesn’t mean) is absolutely absurd.
That’s what mainstream country has become, however, to a large degree in 2008—a place where symbolism trumps everything else and where any song that asks us to think is an outlier. Mainstream radio reinforces that we’re country, that we love God, and, of course, as is the case here, that America is a land of milk and honey where everyone who is willing to work gets a fair and equal shot at the American Dream, and where everyone pitches in to help out their neighbors.
To that end, the only acknowledgment this song makes to any part of the complex nature or nuance of our great nation comes in one line of a two line bridge that passes so quickly it is not only expendable but almost unnoticeable if you’re not listening for it, one line that declares that “We don’t always get it right,” and which is immediately thereafter canceled out by the proclamation that “There’s nowhere else I’d rather build my life.”
“We don’t always get it right” is a line composed of the same mass as the rest of the song—zero. It’s designed as a counterweight to those who might criticize “It’s America” for being too positive, thereby giving critics like myself an easy out, a way to say that Atkins does indeed acknowledge America’s imperfect nature.
While Atkins is singing about Springsteen songs, he fails to tap into any bit of the dusty Americana that makes the Boss’ music enduring and quintessentially American. While Atkins is singing about lemonade stands, he seemingly fails to recognize that they are, by and large, a thing of the past, that we live in a society where parents are so protective of their children and fearful for their safety that there’s no way most of them would allow their kids to set up and sell drinks to strangers on the street. The “Picture perfect postcard” Atkins sees is one printed in black and white, and is one which is perfectly incomplete and sentimentalized. It’s not that anything he’s singing about is incorrect—it’s that all of these things are discussed only topically, as if the character of America can really be summed up by “Fireflies in June” or by saying “One nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance.
That may be what Atkins or his audience wants America to be, but that’s not what America is.
That’s not to say that a song of this nature should neutrally discuss the state of the nation–this is, after all, a positive proclamation and there’s nothing wrong with that. But “It’s America” pretends that the images it presents as fundamental exist in isolation, which simply isn’t true. And it makes no attempt to discuss why those images are personally relevant or important to the singer, which just advances the idea that personal relevance is irrelevant and that these symbols of America are universal.
“It’s America” is a symbol not a song, an advertisement not art. And maybe in that we find the most true metaphor relating to this discussion: When it comes to mainstream contemporary art, perhaps this song is America.
Introducing Emily West
Armed with a powerful voice, big-time songwriting talent, and a personality as charming as it is fiery, Capitol Record’s Emily West is currently soldiering up the charts with her debut single “Rocks In Your Shoes,” which she co-wrote with Nashville heavyweights Dave Berg and Annie Tate.
West recently took the time to answer twenty questions for The 9513–an exclusive interview that finds her contemplating the healing powers of chocolate, the viability of ‘chick singers’, and the important influence of her mother.
Jim Malec: Congratulations on all your current upward momentum, Emily. I thought we’d start this Q&A with a question sent in by one of our readers. Barbara, in Winter Haven, wants to know about the status of your album–have you finished writing for it? Also, a little birdie tells me you finally have a release date.
Emily West: Yes! The little gossiping birdie is right! I have finished the record and it is set to be out on record shelves in the fall of 2008! The album will be self-titled Emily West. I racked my brain trying to think of a cool title for the album, but the only thing I thought up was cheesy and too over-thought. It’s my first album ever, so I am pretty certain having my name sprawled out on the cover of the record is hands-down the best title to go with. (Plus, It’s old-fashion kinda…and ‘old-fashion’ is the ‘new’ ‘new-fashion’.)
JM: On August 23, 2006, you wrote in your blog that you wanted to, “…Make an emotional wreck of a record. I want to have the listener laugh, smile and be tappin’ their fingers on the steering wheel while driving…I want them to push the track button over to number three and have to pull their car over while they sit sobbing…I want to move the needle point and make country music interesting like it was when artists like Loretta and Tammy were singing on the radio. I want to be a part of a genre of music and make it timeless and real again.”
JM: Did you manage to accomplish all of that?
EW: Wow–I had some high expectations for myself, didn’t I? Back then, I was so focused on making a record that was real and authentic. I didn’t want there to be any emotional crumb left out of what I was going through, musically and emotionally. I didn’t want to be a clique and sing about something or someone I knew nothing about. I was hard on myself to make a record that made sense to me and to my emotions. I wanted to be the one who could listen to it and relate with it enough to pull my own car over and sob (or laugh). I wanted to be able to do that with my own music…not even in a vain way, either. As an artist, you could say that there were times of me growing impatient with the record process, but now I am so thankful that it was not rushed and put on the shelves just to be ‘put on the shelves.’
I also didn’t want to grow old one day, look back in the archives of my music, and be too embarrassed to let my own grandchildren listen and appreciate the songs I chose to write, cut and eventually, be performing in casinos. I can honestly say that I have worked so hard on this record, and I am proud of it’s debut. In fact, I look forward to my grandchildren (and the fans of country music), hearing this one day.
JM: Tell me, in more specific terms, about your approach to recording your debut album. What can we expect, artistically? Was there a specific sound or “feel” you were aiming for in the studio?
EW: What can I say? I am a ‘super fan’ of anything melodic. I am lyrically driven as well. I just really worked closely with my producers and writers to create real, honest, uninhibited music. As a writer I tend to work toward a good haunting, strong melody with words that say something different than how the next broad would say it. I’ve always loved classic oldies and contemporary rock. I guess you could say I have my honky tonk moments, with a little bit of emotional rock moments a la carte. It’s all real, and very melody-driven with strong lyrics. It’s not worth wasting my vocal nodes on something that doesn’t speak back to the listeners and rock at the same time. My producers (Jeremy Stover and Mark Bright) knew what they were doing, too. And the musicians, they were key. I wanted to marry all of them.
JM: Of all the songs that made it onto the record, which is your favorite (and why)?
EM: Last time I checked my name wasn’t Sophie. This isn’t Sophie’s Choice and I can’t answer that question. Either way, my favorite song changes on a regular basis. It’s like mood swings with girls–I will change my answer by the time I am through answering it. Plus, it’s like picking between babies. I’m a good mama, and I don’t play favoritism, although, I will say that “Blue Sky” may one day get me out of me renting and actually have me owning.
JM: In another one of your MySpace blog posts, you wrote about spending four years, “…developing, waiting, holding [your] breath.” Was there ever a time, during that period, when you just felt like packing everything up and going home to Iowa?
EW: Hell no! I was just feeling sorry for myself and wanted some blog attention over MySpace. That blog was written before my mom had the infamous “big-girl panty” talk with me, which was the inspiration for my single, “Rocks In Your Shoes.” Ironically enough, that talk–when my mom told me to “put my big girl panties on and deal with it” (and I guess I did)–got me out of the pity phase and got me on the charts!
JM: When you first got signed to Capitol, did you have any idea it would take so long for things to start rolling?
EW: No…but the wait was worth it.
JM: Going back to everyone’s favorite social networking site…in your “storytellers” blog about the song “Annie Gonna Get A New Gun,” you wrote that, after a breakup, you sometimes like to “eat chocolate and MySpace all night.” Which is better for a bad case of the blues, chocolate or MySpace?
EW: Hips? MySpace. Heart? Chocolate.
JM: This is the last MySpace question (I swear!): As I read through your insightful, candid, frequent, and usually hilarious blog posts, I sometimes find myself thinking, “Emily West is completely crazy.” Are you, in fact, completely crazy?
EW: Yes, but only the ‘good’ kind.
JM: Your given name is Emily Nemmers, right? Why did you change it to Emily West? Was that at the prompting of your label, and did you have any reservations about the switch? Did you ever feel like you were sacrificing a part of your identity?
EW: I changed my name right before I made the big move to Nashville. I just felt like it needed to be done. I debated with myself on whether or not I was going to keep it on the DL or not, but I am such a loudmouth, my plan of keeping it on the DL didn’t pan out. In the beginning, I guess I felt a little guilty for changing it, but not anymore. I’m still, and will always be known as Nemmers to my friends and my family. Heck, I’m kind of like Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana…without the wig change!
JM: Recently, you were invited to perform on the Opry. What is more overwhelming–hearing yourself on the radio for the first time, or hearing yourself being introduced by Little Jimmy Dickens?
EW: Hearing yourself on the radio will never get old. I’ve only heard myself on the radio once when I was in West Palm, on WIRK, and I’ve only been on The Grand Ol’ Opry once. A girl can only experience so much. To process that all of this is happening in my life now is ridiculous. Both are twisted, surreal dreams that have come true for me. Little Jimmy Dickens kissed my hand, and I was invited back. I am in Heaven and I can’t choose between the pearl gate and the singing angels. All of this is too much. Don’t do that to a girl.
JM: Country music hasn’t been especially friendly to new female artists in recent years. Why do you think that is, and what do you have to do to compete in the currently male-dominated market?
EW: There are a lot of new females coming out and I can’t wait until the day we start proving people wrong about ‘chick singerism’. I just think that it’s all about entertainment, great songs and having the “it” factor, which leads to “staying power.” It’s easy to be a trend and have a nice run for a couple months with a hit single, but the “staying power” for women seems to have slacked a little in the past years. It’s been depressing. We haven’t seen anyone rule since Faith, Reba, Martina, and The Dixie Chicks. These women have made it and are already fabulous. I want to see someone break though like these amazing women did, and keep their bullet, enough to become a “high status” act. I am proud to be a chick singer because I know who I am as a woman, and I know that I am more than just a trend sporting a new set of ‘blocks on my chest,’ posing. People want to be entertained in music. The male acts out there are unbelievable, but they can’t compete with us, just like we can’t compete with them. If you ask me, it’s not about if you are a man or you are a woman, it’s if you are bad-ass enough to bring it. I think the industry might have forgotten what the word ‘entertainment’ means for a while. But no worries–we girls are starting to ‘Barbara Mandrel’ our way back into show business, and I am so excited! My emotional batons are ready and waving. Bring it.
JM: What is the hardest part–personally, professionally, or creatively–about being a major label recording artist?
EW: I don’t know yet. I am just starting out. But my first thought from my experience so far would be getting homesick for the simplicity of running errands with my mom in Bellevue. Those times are getting fewer and far between lately.
JM: You’re earning quite a reputation in certain circles for your impersonations of artists like Cher and Celine Dion. Personally, I think your Reba is amazing. Is there anyone you can’t “do”?
EW: Matt Lauer.
JM: Speaking of “Dos” (and “Don’ts”), you were recently called a “Don’t” at the CMT Music Awards. I have no idea what that means. But my question to you is this: When you were a “struggling artist,” you enjoyed anonymity. Has it been difficult adjusting to being in the public eye and opening yourself up to criticism?
EW: No. High school would have eaten me alive if I let it. So I am going to be just fine dealing with the gossip-talk in this business. I was called a “Don’t” by some irrelevant fashion critic that obviously doesn’t know style, because I felt pretty that night. And I don’t care who said what about me. All that is just ‘fun famous people gossip column buzz talk’. You can call me the Bjork of Country Music Bad Fashion–as long as I am not on the “Don’t” list for records, I am floating on a highly fashionable first-class cloud, sippin’ on gin and juice.
JM: Vocal impressions aside, if you had to pick one artist to model your career after, who would it be (and why)?
EW: Linda Ronstandt with Bette Midler on the side. Linda, because her voice was so versatile. She took adventurous chances and cut records that were so different from each other. She sang traditional country, made a ton of rock records, folk, rocked a couple Spanish records, wore roller skates on the cover of one record and sang duets with Aaron Neville! Bette, because she is ‘Bette’. She was “Every Woman” before Whitney was singing about it. She’s so talented and has always been innovative. She’s taking Celine’s stage on Broadway this year, too.
JM: Artists are often defined, at least a little bit, by the company they keep. Who do you hang with? (Here’s your chance to plug one of your friends–give me the name of a singer or songwriter who you really dig that our readers might never have heard of. It has to be someone you know personally).
EW: I have a mixture of friends. I have a fish tank full of people that I enjoy writing with. As I brag and name them, feel free to stalk them on Myspace: Kelly Archer, Kate York, and American Bang…I could go on, but my butt hurts and I’m tired. If you go on my Top 18, you will see a lot more! Go friends!
JM: What’s the single most important thing that the world needs to know about Emily West?
EW: I have an overbite that I adore. I also love to sing Patsy Cline in the bathtub because of good echoing acoustics chiming off my Bellevue tile that’s starting to rust. I love my family and my dogs in a very huge way.
JM: That was three things, but I’ll let it slide. This time. Next question: What is country music?
EW: Shut up.
Country music has been, for a long time, the only genre of music people have felt a need to protect, and to set boundaries on how far a newcomer can go with it. It’s almost like defending your little sister, or not letting anyone mess with your brother. People are proud of country music and are a little hesitant to let anyone take over and change it. But, just like everything else in the world, things evolve–songwriting evolves and production evolves. I am proud that we stay so protective of country music’s integrity, and I do feel that there are different kinds of country music. We are now not afraid to admit that. As far as my definition of what I think country music is, all I can say is what I know–and all I know is that country music, if you need it to, can stab the emotional vein right when you are needing it to bleed. And it’s the only music ever to be able to hit people like that. That’s why I think people are so protective of it. It’s the best music out there. In a world compacted with artificial, plastic emotions, country music still holds up (even with it’s changing evolution) as being the ‘big brother’ that never lets us go through our heartache alone.
JM: I have to say, you have one of the brightest personalities I’ve ever encountered during my time writing about country music. How do you manage to stay so gosh-darned cheery all the time?
EW: First of all, thank you. Secondly, I am my mother’s daughter and she has taught me a lot. I always remember my mom having a smile on her face. Even if it was in the middle of a crowded room, where no one was talking to her, she would still be smiling. Even if it was at a wall. I would walk up to her and say, “Mom! Stop smiling,” and she’d then say, with a smile, “What?” and keep on smiling. She was always so cheery, and I think that just bled down into my personality. If I sleep over at her house, she still wakes me up by clapping her hands and singing, “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory.’
I’m just like her, only I have more of a ‘demented’ personality. In a ‘good’ way. Thank you again though. Actually, ‘Thank my Mom’.
JM: I’m very lazy–so please ask yourself, and then answer, the final question.
EW: What’s your earliest memory of music in the house growing up?
EW: My earliest memory would be me dancing around to Sandi Patty and Annie The Orphan Soundtrack. My sister and I would put our Can Can Slips on and prance and twirl around our old house on Columbus Drive. Ironically, we weren’t aloud to listen to music with too much ‘beat’ in it because we were strong Baptist Church-goers and my folks, becoming new believers themselves, thought it was too much…’beat’, I guess. “Heavy beats” led to provocative thoughts or something. They should have known better, though, because I became what I’ve become today–a Country Music Rock Star chasing ‘beats’ and making ‘beats’. My religious beliefs are having no religious beliefs. I just love Jesus and know that he loves me too. He even lets me ‘beat’ as loud as I want to at my shows. He’s the greatest.
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2018.
Introducing Joey + Rory: “Like Two Names Carved in an Oak Tree”
Donning stage attire that typically consists of boots, a collared shirt and overalls, 43-year-old songwriter Rory Lee Feek, who has penned hits including Clay Walker’s “Chain of Love” and Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach,” stands far apart from the quasi-rock styled twenty somethings that dominate CMT. In fact, Feek may be one of the least likely individuals to ever be vaulted into the national spotlight via a reality TV talent competition–let alone one aired by the aforementioned, MTV-owned network.
That, however, is exactly what has happened to the husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory, which consists of Feek and his wife Joey Martin. Together, Feek and Martin navigated all the way to the final episode of CMT’s Can You Duet before being outdueled for the crown by the years-younger Caitlin and Will.
But with a feisty debut single already clawing its way into country radio playlists across the nation, and an album, The Life of a Song, in stores months before the planned release from the show’s victors, this duo–which hadn’t even been conceived prior to Can You Duet–seems like a winner, what with their time on the show being rewarded in the form of a record deal, national media attention, and an unexpected second chance for Martin, who was once signed to, and subsequently released from, Sony.
Perhaps the greatest reward of all for their time on Can You Duet, however, is the fact that the couple now gets to experience the fruits of their labor together, as partners in art. They are, after all, already partners in essentially every other aspect of their lives, their deeply transcendent adoration of each other clearly evident. And so, despite the fact that Feek and Martin had never performed together as Joey + Rory before the show, their musical partnership doesn’t really seem all that unlikely.
Without a doubt, Joey + Rory stands out in a country music crowd dominated by youth and the pop-leaning music that is often produced by those younger artists. The couple is older than most new artists–their ages would even make them ineligible to compete on that other reality show, the one that has launched the careers of Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler–and their music, often upbeat but at times heartbreakingly sad or less than politically correct, is, as Rory describes it, the “country kind” of country music often passed over when it comes to radio airplay and mainstream attention.
Despite all of that, however, the one thing that makes Joey + Rory stand out most of all is their relationship with each other, a love so strong and glowing that it can’t help but seep into their music, their vocal harmony carrying that indescribable quality that only emanates from two people singing together who share a bond that stretches far beyond the singer/singer dynamic. These are two people, yes, who share an intense and intimate passion for singing, for storytelling, and for country music, but their passion for each other is what binds all of this together and renders the product of their talents in each of those areas uniquely their own.
And if you don’t believe in love at first sight, or if you don’t believe that there are certain people in this world who are meant–by nature, by God, by some mysterious and unknown force of the universe–to be together, then you haven’t met Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek, who remind us just how special and powerful love can be when two people get it right.
JIM MALEC: We’ve all heard quite a bit of the story surrounding how the two of you met, but I’d like you to take me back a bit further–where did you grow up, what kinds of things were you involved with as a kid, and how did you first fall in love with country music?
RORY LEE FEEK: I’m from Atchison, Kansas, a little railroad town right on the river. My father was a country singer–that was his passion. He used to play at clubs and such when I was real, real young. I don’t really remember that too much. But he mostly played in the bedroom and sang for us. And he was very, very, very good. I just remember his passion and how much he loved country music–he worked on the railroad, but singing is what he always wanted to be doing. He had always wanted to move to Nashville, but never did. And even though my parents divorced when I was real little, the times when I did see him…I think I even put him up on a higher pedestal, because I didn’t see him that much.
I always loved country music and I think his dream got passed to me early on. And other than a few sidetracks, where I thought I wanted to be a trucker and a couple of other things, I always just wanted to be a country singer.
By ninth grade I was writing songs–as soon as I learned how to play guitar. Oddly enough, Dad didn’t teach me how to play–I ended up buying a Don Williams and a Jim Croce songbook. And from those two songbooks, I taught myself how to play. I would put my tape recorder on in my bedroom and just record hours of music [from the radio], and I’d learn every song I recorded. When I was writing out those lyrics and chords, as I was learning them, it just caused me to think about how they worked, and to pay attention to the words. So I started writing songs. And I was always writing songs and singing all through those next, I don’t know, fifteen years or something.
At about age 30, I moved to Nashville. By then I’d been married and divorced, and I’d been in the Marine Corps for eight years. On my first trip here [to Nashville] I think I realized that you could make a living being a songwriter. And that’s immediately what I wanted to do. I could tell that it was kind of a beauty contest for singers, and that wasn’t a fight I thought I was going to compete well in. But in songwriting, the best song can win, and I felt like I could do that. And so that’s what I’ve been doing for the last, oh, thirteen years or so. I think I moved here in ’95.
JM: And congratulations to you on the success that you’ve found so far. What was your favorite Don Williams song from that songbook?
RORY: Probably a song called “She Never Knew Me.” I don’t even know if it was a big hit for him, but it’s funny, when you’re growing up, the songs that are around you. My dad sang that one. He sang a few other Williams songs, but that one he sang a lot. I love that song–I always did–and so it’s still probably my favorite Don Williams song.
JM: Joey, you’re up. Tell me your story.
JOEY MARTIN: I’m from a farming community in Alexandria, Indiana, and I’m the middle of five kids. My dad was a GM worker and my mom was a housewife. My mom and dad actually met singin’ in a band together in high school, and the singing was passed down to me. At a young age I got a taste of what it was to perform, and I just really, really felt like I had something to offer to people.
The very first song I ever learned was Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” at the age of five. It was a long song, and I remember thinking that it had a lot of words…and I couldn’t read. So they sat me down and Dad played and Mom sang while they recorded it on this little tape recorder. Then they sent me to my room and said, “When you learn this, you come down and you sing it for us.” So up I went, and about three hours later I came back down and knew the song word for word.
Growin’ up I knew that I wanted to go to Nashville when I graduated high school. When I was 22 I think I moved to Nashville; I loaded up a cattle stock trailer with all my belongings and Mom helped me move. And I just worked. Instead of working as a waitress or anything like that, the only thing I knew how to do was be around horses, ‘cause I’d always been around horses. I had worked in a vet clinic for quite a few years back in Indiana, and that was kinda my trade, cleanin’ stalls and bein’ a vet’s helper. So when I moved to Nashville, I continued to do that and worked my way, eventually, over to Lebanon, Tennessee, where I worked on a farm for LeAnn Rimes’ dad Wilbur. I managed his cattle operation and his horses.
Then I started networking a little bit, and the very first songwriters night I went to, Rory was playing. I didn’t know anything about him, I didn’t know who he was. But I knew I fell in love the moment I heard him and watched him play. Ironically, it wasn’t ‘till a few years later that we actually met.
JM: Your label was very adamant with me about the fact that your name is “Joey plus Rory,” not “Joey and Rory.” What’s the story with the plus sign?
RORY: There are a lot of “ands” out there. And we’ve been very adamant about the plus sign, too, actually. Mostly because it’s hard to separate yourself from the pack, and I think if you get to watch us or see us you’ll see that we are a little different. But if you just read “Joey and Rory,” well, it might as well be “Brooks and Dunn,” or whoever.
And really, the plus says a number of different things to us. I mean, it was already Joey. She was already a great singer. And this is just adding me onto what she was already doing. The other part of it is that we’re together, like two names carved in an oak tree. And we want to be together for a long time. So I think that’s really kinda where it came from, and why we’re trying to make it stick. It’s just tough ‘cause most people just ignore it and still do the Joey and Rory, and we’re glad that anybody writes or says anything about us, so we don’t complain.
JM: Let’s talk about Can You Duet. What was it like taking part in a nationally televised talent competition? Were you prepared for everything that your participation in the show would entail?
JOEY: I don’t think we had any idea what we were getting in to. It wasn’t something we were going to do at all–we didn’t even hear about it until somebody told us about it. That somebody said, “Y’all should go out for it,” and we literally looked at the guy and said, “Y’all who?”
“You and Rory,” he said. “As a husband and wife. As a duo.”
First off, we don’t even watch reality TV, let alone could we imagine participating in such a thing. But we made this little home video that we turned in to audition with, and there was something about it, evidently, that the people at CMT loved. They loved our backstory, and the fact that I own a restaurant [Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse in Pottsville, TN] and the fact that Rory’s a songwriter, and that we just collaborate as a duo in life.
We auditioned for the show, and we ended up making the top 25 and moved into the Opryland Hotel. Then we made it from the top 25 to the top 12, then it went down to eight, and then the big show started on the main stage. I really think it was nerve wracking for us, but the beauty of it was that we had each other for support; we faced our fears and the challenges together and head-on. And there wasn’t really anything stopping us once we got started, as far as our momentum. We just held on to each other and enjoyed the ride, and couldn’t believe we were a part of it.
JM: What would you say was the most difficult part about being on Can You Duet?
RORY: There were a couple of difficult parts–one was that it was just so not what we’re about. For us to
be in the middle of it, and to allow ourselves to be in the middle of it, was scary. It was just so kind of anti what we do. That was part of it. But I think the toughest part of all was that what we do best, we didn’t get to do at all. I mean, for one week we got to sing an original song. But what we do best is sing our songs–“Sweet Emmylou” and all these other things we had written and worked on that were important, and that said things, and that had a style and a personality.
So what was probably toughest was week after week competing doing a bunch of cover songs from a list that we didn’t even want to be doing and that didn’t really represent us. But, at the same point, if we could get through that and turn it into something, then we’d get an opportunity, potentially, to be able to do it the way we wanted to.
JM: On The Life of a Song, your debut record, you have an rather unique cover of an iconic American song. So, I have to know–when you guys do your waltz version of “Freebird” live, do you include a five minute guitar solo?
JOEY: Rory’s good, but he ain’t that good.
RORY: We’re always playin’ it by ourselves so far ‘cause we don’t have a band, so we’ve got about a five second guitar solo, and that pretty much covers all of my skills. We concentrate on our strengths, so as quick as we can get back to Joey’s singin’, we get back to it.
JOEY: Oh man…
JM: You guys begin the record by pleading, to someone, to “…just play the song.” I was curious, as I listened to that, about who that sentiment is directed at. Are you talking to radio? The industry? Critics like me?
RORY: Well, we’re definitely not talking to critics like you. But if we’re on a radio show, we’re definitely not talking to radio.
You know what, it’s a lot of different things, but that was really written more from a songwriter’s viewpoint, and it’s a conglomeration of a bunch of different things. You know, it’s the record labels are over thinking everything, and they’re blaming it on the radio people because radio is over thinking everything, and all that sort of stuff. So I think it’s a little bit of everything. I’d say, honestly, if it were pointed more at something, it would actually be more at the industry–the recording part of it, which is the record labels.
Because that’s kinda where it begins. There are a lot of great songs out there, and more often than not–and you ask any great songwriter, and they’re not even talking about their songs–most of the greatest great songs never actually get a chance because they [the labels] are just concentrating on radio friendly, or whatever their catch phrase is at the moment. So I think that’s really where it all stems from. And there are problems outside of that, but it’s probably directed more there.
JM: Joey, that leads into a question that I wanted to ask you. In the submission video you sent in to Can You Duet, you said that some of Rory’s best songs hadn’t been heard yet. Why do you think that is? It’s a sentiment that I hear from songwriters all the time–as Rory just alluded to–that they have this catalog full of fantastic material, but that they have to write more commercialized or “poppy” songs just to keep the bills paid.
JOEY: I don’t know if there’s a quick answer or an easy answer for that. In my opinion, what Rory does best is storytelling. We’re very faithfilled people, and so he tends to write about faith–in a lot of subtlety. I mean, nothing is ever thrown at you or preachy, but what he writes best, in my opinion, and what touches me the most, are his story songs. So much of the time it’s not embraced as much as the bubblegum or the pop, or just the easy flowing, not real deep songs, would be on radio.
I fell in love with Rory because of his music and because of what he wrote about–what he was as a man and as a person. And if he wasn’t quite there, he sure fooled me in his songwriting. So that’s why I really believe that his best songs–like a song called “Mild Man,” or “Bible And a Belt”–I mean, they say something that maybe people don’t really want to hear. And so–
RORY: –“People” meaning at record labels, or whatever, not that people don’t want to hear.
JOEY: Yeah, not the consumer or the listener. But I think the record labels, maybe it scares them because they’re afraid that it might be too much of one thing or the other. And so they won’t give that song a shot to be heard.
RORY: I think, on my end, it is some of that stuff, just when it comes down to business. The business is built on, they see lightning strike somewhere and then they all run to that spot and spend all their time trying to make lightning strike doing the exact same thing. And then it strikes somewhere else. And they don’t–I just think it’s built wrong, in a lot of ways, and so what’s really popular is all that they’re really interested in. You know, even if our listener is a 38yearold female, they’re trying so hard to woo in all the young, cool people that they just ignore our real listener a lot of the time and alienate them. And they make it so glamorous–and no one can even actually relate to it. And so the songs end up being a little too much that way.
You know, we’re real opinionated, so that’s just our opinion. And, honestly, we love country music–you know, the country kind of country music. And that’s not necessarily in vogue right now. And so that’s probably another reason why I don’t get as many songs recorded–‘cause I’m not a pop songwriter.
JM: Two questions I would ask you, then: First, do you feel like an outsider within the Nashville songwriting community because you’re not a pop songwriter? And, second, do you feel like you were able to actually make a country record? Is The Life of a Song a country kind of country record?
RORY: As far as not getting songs recorded, or do I feel like I have to mold to something, I’m not good at molding to anything anyway, but it doesn’t really matter. I just do what I do, and I feel fortunate to get any songs recorded. And I’m not complaining about the songs I’m getting recorded, because there are a lot of people who have had less success and less luck than I’ve had. So it’s not really complaining. But, at the same point, it is frustrating, because what I do best…it might get overlooked a lot of the time.
But it’s all a process, and honestly I think now that we’re doing this, it’s fascinating and really, really exciting for us because there is no one telling us what we can or can’t do. We can put out a song about a white trash ho, and we can turn around and sing, and title our album, “The Life of a Song,” about great songs and how they can affect people. And we can do anything in between all of that stuff.
Did we get to make the album that we wanted to make? We got to make the album that everybody wants to make. In my opinion, it’s really special, and there are a lot of great songs on it. Some of ‘em we wrote, but some of the best ones are things that we didn’t write, that we just found from other people. And they’re fabulous. So, if this record isn’t great, it’s one hundred percent our fault, because it’s what we wanted to do exactly.
JM: I couldn’t help but notice that you just mentioned white trash hos. “Cheater Cheater” isn’t exactly politically correct–well, let’s say that it’s not as sanitized as what we’re used to hearing on country radio, which ties into what we were talking about earlier with “Play The Song.” Has there been any negative backlash to the tone of the single?
RORY: Well, there’s been just a…not very much. It’s almost been completely positive. Actually a lot less backlash than I thought there would be. There have been a few casualties. We’re in Boston right now, and we heard, through our promotion people, that the big station up here ain’t ever ever ever ever ever gonna play it. And maybe so. That’s ok. If you stand by your convictions, that’s fine by us.
Besides the Overstock.com people, we had another huge company basically talking to us recently about doing a big endorsement thing where we would do a national AD campaign for them. And they backed out–we just found out two days ago–because of the line “White trash ho.” And so, yeah, there’s been a little backlash. But you know what, we’re just trying to be real. We’ve got some great songs about love and faith and life and family, and that’s so, so important to us. But it’s also important to be real, and I can tell ‘ya, if you got Joey fired up, and she were in that situation [like the woman in the song], that’s exactly how she’d call it. And she wants to be able to not have to over think it. She doesn’t want to have to edit it. She just wants to be able to be honest. And that’s a big amen from me, so…
We don’t expect everybody to love it. But we think a lot of people are going to.
JM: Since we’re talking about country music and country country music, let me go ahead and ask you–what is country music?
RORY: Just, what is country music?
JM: What is it.
RORY: Uh, hun, do you wanna start?
JOEY: Hmm…you go, I guess. [Laughter]
RORY: I could see in her eyes right away she was not gonna take that question before I did.
JOEY: That’s a deep question. I mean, I guess it’s deep but it’s not.
RORY: Well, it doesn’t have to be.
JM: That’s why it’s tricky. I have to keep you on your toes.
JOEY: You’re doin’ a good job, man.
RORY: To me, I think country music is real life. It’s conversation, people talkin’ across the fence from one yard to another. Talkin’ about the things that matter to them, whether that’s love or life or politics or faith, or whatever it is. Country music is a piece of America–the musical piece of America that we all need to keep us going.
JOEY: Country music, to me, just in terms of how it influenced me as a little girl, I think country music is stories. It’s what touches people and what impacts them. And to me, it was a healing tool–if I was upset or hurting or sad, I’d go out and get on my horse and sing country songs, ‘cause I’d cry through ‘em, but then after I got done crying I felt so much better. And I still feel that way. I dig out those Emmylou records, those Dolly records, and have me a good cry and I feel better. So to me, country music is healing.
JM: Joey, you were at Sony a while back, is that right?
JOEY: I was. That was about six years ago.
JM: What went wrong at Sony?
JOEY: My experience at Sony was–well, Paul Worley signed me to a production deal. Billy Crane, the songwriter, found me and took me to Paul, and Paul loved what I was doing. At the time, Paul had his own record production thing goin’ on. He was stepping away from Sony. He sent me to Sony though, and Sony signed me on the spot. We went in and cut a record–we cut five sides–and then, as we were gathering more songs, in the meantime Rory and I got married.
I came to Sony unattached and single, and when I turned my record in, I was married. And, honestly, part of the reason it went bad was because they didn’t like the concept of me being married. I was no longer a single, available woman, and they thought that was a hindrance to my career. And any time I would ask any kind of questions–they had a problem with me asking questions.
I said, “I’m going to be going out on a radio tour, why can’t my husband come out on the road and play guitar for me?” And that was just a problem. I wasn’t allowed to ask questions, so I really didn’t have a whole lot of relationships with some of the people that were there. And then, in the end, at about the same time the whole label was kinda going through a whole regime change and some of the main people were let go. And I was just one of the artists that got weeded out.
I actually kinda made that call. They said, you know, you have a choice here–you have your career or you have your marriage. And I said, “Well, I only get one marriage in this lifetime. And I choose my marriage over anything.”
You know, at the time, I thought that was my chance. I was 26. That was my chance, and it was gone. But I knew I had made the right decision and that God would bless me in the end, somehow. I had no idea it would be in this way. And, gosh you know, it was just an experience that was very hard at the time, but I’m so pleased and so glad that, on the other side of that, this is what God had in store.
RORY: That first year was really hard on her and hard on our marriage. It was hard on Joey for a good little while because those kinds of opportunities don’t come around…for most people, they never come around. So, if it came around and then it doesn’t work out, you can almost guarantee that it won’t come around again. It was really hard for her to think that maybe she was going to lose that.
We did independently keep working on music, and just developing it and believing in it, and we never stopped believing in it and in the fact that God had given her this gift for a reason, this great voice and being so pretty and wonderful.
But it’s especially ironic that now it’s such an extreme the other way–they wouldn’t even let her ask a question about her husband being able to play guitar, or anything simple, you know, and that was a deal breaker. And now, it’s the whole reason there’s a deal–because we’re together and it makes us unique. And I can guarantee we never saw that coming. When Joey had that deal she was 26. She’s 33 now. I’m 43. We’re way past…I mean, the record deal police are gonna come get us any minute, ‘cause this is not possible. You can’t be a husband and wife, you can’t be this age.
We just sit back and are in awe of the possibilities and we’re thankful that we’re here.
JM: So is this the endgame for you? Will you always be Joey + Rory? Or will there be a Joey record, or a Rory record?
RORY: I think we’ll always be Joey + Rory because that’s what got us here, and we love it. But, we actually have talked to our label about doing a Rory + Joey record. It’d still be Joey + Rory and we’d title it Rory + Joey, and it’d be songs that I would sing and Joey would sing harmony for me.
We could have easily split the record in half this time, but this feels right. This feels like the way we’re gonna go. And we don’t worry, we’re not concerned at all about that stuff. When we play shows I sing lots of songs–funny songs and hit songs and whatever. We’re just a husband and wife and who knows. I’d just like to think we’re gonna be able to make a little bit of an impact with this record, and if we do, then we get to make another one someday.
JOEY: A lot of people on the show, even the judges, would ask, “Rory, are you ever gonna step up to the mic and sing some lead?” And, you know, we made that call, that we really didn’t know when the next opportunity would be, if we’d get booted off that show or not, so we just kinda kept goin’ with the momentum that we had, which was me singing the lead. But in our live shows, I mean–not only is Rory an incredible songwriter, he’s a wonderful singer as well. So, definitely, in the future, if we get a future with another album, we will be highlighting Rory. Maybe just do a Rory CD. Rory and Joey.
JM: I’ve read quite a bit about the first time Joey saw you, Rory, when she came to that songwriters night at the Bluebird and fell in love. But what was going through your mind the first time you saw Joey? What do you remember from that moment?
RORY: I kinda remember seeing her at the Bluebird…sort of. But I only remember it because of this girl Joey…I think it was around the time that Joey from…what was that TV show?
JOEY: Dawson’s Creek?
RORY: Dawson’s Creek, yeah. That was on TV then, and there was this girl named Joey. So I think I kinda remember that she was actually there, with a friend of ours, Keith Anderson, who’s a buddy of mine. I think I remember that he had brought her there to see us play. But I don’t really know if I actually remember that at all, or if I’m just making it up after the fact. But the name Joey definitely sticks out.
Anyway, it’s a long story to get there, but she shows up at this other writers night three years later. I’ve put it on in this little town where my office is–I’ve decided to write far away from Nashville, to just pull a Norman Rockwell and write where the people are. So I’m out there and I’m writing songs, and someone asked me to put together a writers night, like a ‘Bluebird south’ every week or every two weeks, I can’t remember how it was.
So I did, and it’s in this room upstairs. And at the very first one, Joey comes bounding up the steps right before it starts, and I’m standing there and she lands right in front of me. I’m the only one up there at that point, and I thought to myself, wow– she was awful beautiful to be that far away from Green Hills. She’s lost!
But I said “Hi” to her and introduced myself, and I think she said that she’d seen me play or something, and somehow we talked for just a second or so about the music business. Then she went and sat down. Her mom and another friend of hers was in town, so they all sat down and watched the show. And I remember exactly where she sat, and I remember watching her…and she was so pretty.
The next week, she came back again. I used to invite everyone, after the show, back to this little hardware store where I’d put my songwriting office, and she came over that night. A whole bunch of people were over there, but she and I talked for a second and I asked her, ‘cause I heard she had a record deal, if I could pitch her some songs.
She gave me a number to call, and a couple days later I left her a message. She called me back and left me a message saying, “Here’s my P.O. box–you can mail ‘em to me.” And the one thing that was clear was that she was very distant from me. Both those times, when she came to those writers nights, she was very cold and distant. So I was real clear on what kind of impact I made on her, which was none.
But I was in the studio a few days after that, and my buddy Tim Johnson walked in, and he said, “I got two words for you: Joey Martin.”
And I said, “That girl hates me, she’s so cold to me!”
“Well,” Tim said, “all I know is that when me and Megan gave her a ride back to her truck after the show last weekend, she asked if you were dating somebody, or if the girl you were dating was very serious.”
So, I thought I’d call her one more time. I left another message and said that I’d be home at nine. I gave her my home number and told her she was welcome to call me.
She did call me, and the very first conversation we ever really had, I was sitting on the couch in our little farm house where we live now, and the kids were asleep, and the very first thing she said to me was, “I want to tell you why I’ve been distant to you when you’ve seen me both those other times. I saw you play at a writers night a couple of years ago, and I knew, right then and there, that you were the person I’m supposed to spend the rest of my life with. I loved everything about you. Everything you said, everything you wrote. How you…everything. But your daughters were there that night, and you introduced them halfway through the show, and I thought to myself, all the good ones are gone.”
But then, a couple of weeks prior to that conversation, she said, one of the Doctors she worked with at the vet clinic told her about this writers night he was going to–with Tim Johnson and this guy named Rory Feek. And she told the doctor, “That’s the guy I was going to marry.” And she told him that story and said that if it wasn’t for him–meaning me–that she’d already have been married and having kids. “He was gonna be my guy,” she told the doctor.
“Rory’s not married,” the doctor said. “He’s been a single father for twelve years.”
She told me she had shown up at the writers night just to see if those feelings were still there. And what she said on the phone was that they were still there. “That’s why I’m distant from you,” she said, “Because in the last year and a half I’ve been dating a different guy, and it’s been pretty serious, and I would never want to do anything wrong. Just because those feelings are so strong, that’s why I’ve been cold to you.”
So she was telling me this, and I was sitting there on the couch, and it was just kind of a surreal moment. I’ve heard about love at first sight, or magic love, and I’ve written lots of songs about it, but I can guarantee you, I had never lived it. I never thought it was really possible until then. And our story just took off from there.
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.
Album Review: Sara Evans – Stronger
Two strangers fall in love on an airplane. Two lovers jump in a car, put their map away and drive “anywhere.” A woman finds that life’s hardships make her stronger. And a mainstream country singer delivers a derivative, formulaic album. Just another day inside the Nashville music making machine.
It takes literally less than one minute for Sara Evans’ sixth studio album to reveal itself as a cliché monster, with the “Born to Fly” and “Suds in the Bucket” singer launching into a soaring chorus that declares, “All I want is to be loved desperately, like the sun loves the moon/Like the moon adores the shore.” A few seconds later, Evans—who co-wrote the song with Nashville songsmith and frequent collaborator Marcus Hummon—swaps her amateur poet hat for that of dimestore philosopher: “Babe, I believe that every day is a crossroad,” she sings. “We can take the right fork, or take the left, just as long as we move ahead.”
The album’s second track, “A Little Bit Stronger,” provides a glimmer of hope that perhaps the record won’t be the train wreck hinted at by its predecessor. Despite its heavy-handed optimism, the Luke Laird, Hillary Lindsey and Hillary Scott composition is a fully formed power ballad with a tight and modestly effective storyline that manages to escape the triteness of its theme and wind up as an earnestly empowering anthem.
But the reprieve is short lived, as “A Little Bit Stronger” is immediately followed by a droning cover of Rod Stewart’s synth-laden 1988 hit “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” where the synth is replaced with some generic steel guitar fills. That ill-advised cut is followed by a song called “Anywhere,” which is Jo Dee Messina’s “Head’s Carolina, Tails California” without the urgency or impetus.
And it’s just downhill from there. In “Alone” (a ballad that opens to a quiet acoustic guitar and the always-foreboding lyrics “Thank you for the roses you sent me/They’re beautiful”), Evans’ character is leaving her forgiveness-seeking boyfriend a voice mail that says, “Please don’t call every time you think of me” and “Sometimes loving me means leaving me alone.” Ouch.
Following an awful Kara DioGuardi song called “Wildflower,” Stronger comes to a close with a not-very-bluegrass “Bluegrass Version” version of “Born To Fly” (effectively making this a nine-song album with a cheap-sounding bonus track).
Stronger is a collection of astonishingly bad songs, but there’s nothing especially noteworthy about that fact in today’s mainstream country music. In fact, most current mainstream country albums are full of astonishingly bad songs. But every now and then, mixed in with all of the trash, it’s possible to find a real gem.
And what’s ultimately the most devastating thing about this album is that, while it contains such a gem, Evans’ amazingly disconnected performance renders it useless.
Co-written by the very talented Nathan Chapman (producer for Taylor Swift and Laura Bell Bundy), “What That Drink Cost Me” is sung by a character who lost her alcoholic husband in a car accident. “I lost a good man to a bad habit/He didn’t love the whiskey, he just had to have it,” she sings. Lyrics like that are the stuff classics are made of.
But Evans’ performance is passionless, clueless and robotic, perhaps the epitome of a singer disconnected from her subject. She hardly sounds like she’s paying attention when she tells the story of waiting for him to come home, and falling to the floor as the police inform her that her lover is dead.
She should be reeling with pain and she cries, “I lost a good man.” But she just sounds sleepy.
If you wanted to give Evans the benefit of the doubt, you could say that her disinterested interpretation attempts to play up the idea she’d already lost him. There’s a line, after all, in the second verse where she sings, “So many nights I’d scream and shout/Even try to hide his keys/I tried everything to keep him from going down that road/Then my heart just let him go.”
But if that’s the case—and I think that’s a very big “if”—it represents a woefully poor interpretation of this character’s emotional turmoil. If you love someone, losing them like that would crush you—even if some part of you expected that you might someday lose them. But not so much of a trace of that pain is communicated through Evans’ delivery.
“What That Drink Cost Me” should be a song that transcends the rest of Stronger‘s disposable fare—every bit of which will be forgotten in no time flat.
Instead, it’s an epic fail from one of country music’s most underachieving singers.
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