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Joey + Rory: 'Can You Duet' finalists live their songs

April 29, 2009 |  1:30 pm


Here’s the difference -- well, one difference -- between L.A. and Nashville.

The other day I met with Joey + Rory, the husband-wife country duo, the morning after their show at Largo at the Coronet. We were talking over breakfast about their unexpected rise on the CMT reality series “Can You Duet” last season, and about some of the limitations such shows place on the contestants, especially those who are true musicians.

In their case, singer Joey Martin once had a record deal with Sony Nashville, although nothing was ever released. She shelved her dream of being a country singing star and opened a restaurant south of Nashville, which she still runs with her sister-in-law. Rory Feek, her husband of seven years, has been earning a solid living as a songwriter -- he wrote the clever “Some Beach” that became a hit in 2004 for Blake Shelton, and "I Will," Jimmy Wayne's new single -- but never thought of himself as a performer.

They’d never considered themselves a team, until an acquaintance who’d been involved with “Can You Duet” suggested that they’d be good candidates for a show whose goal was to launch the next Judds, Brooks & Dunn or Sugarland. As it happened, Naomi Judd was one of the judges.

They were one of three acts that made it to the finals, the result of Rory’s quick wit, Joey’s old-school country singing style and the obvious personal chemistry between two people who clearly adore each other and make no secret of it in public, or on camera.

They hoped that by making it that far in the contest they might work in a song they’d written about how they came together as a couple. But this is reality, not fantasy, TV we're dealing with.

“They told us that the song the winner sang would be their first single, and they handed us this little uptempo ditty,” said Rory, looking as incongruous in his bib overalls in the restaurant of the tony hotel on the edge of Beverly Hills as Oliver Douglas once did plowing his fields in a three-piece suit on “Green Acres.”

“They gave one of the other duos this monster power ballad,” he said. “We knew we were finished right then.”

They came in as second runner-up, but got a record deal of their own on the Sugar Hill folk-bluegrass label, put out a strong debut album, “The Life of a Song,” and have been touring to capitalize on the exposure the show gave them.

And the difference between L.A. and Nashville?

After they finished telling about the song they’d been saddled with for the grand finale, I asked whether the original they’d wanted to sing was one of those on their album.

“No,” Rory said. “Would you like to hear it?”

“Sure,” I said, expecting him to hand me a CD, or pull out an iPod and play me a rough home recording. Instead, he flipped open the case stashed in the next booth, grabbed his guitar, strummed a couple of chords to give Joey the key and then launched into a live performance of the tune, called “Nothing to Remember,”  in the middle of the restaurant.

It was a knockout ballad about taking the risk to express feelings rather than playing it safe and then spending the rest of your life wondering “What if?”

You have to wonder, what if they’d been able to sing that one on “Can You Duet"?

Joey + Rory don’t. They believe they had more creative freedom with "The Life of a Song" than if they'd won the “Can You Duet” top prize. The album has several standouts, among them "Sweet Emmylou," a nod to the queen of alt-country, Emmylou Harris, and "To Say Goodbye," a deeply moving elegy to love that doesn't die.

Besides, while they were still in the running, Naomi Judd gave them something they value even more than a reality show crown.

“She told us, ‘Whatever you do, don’t change. You have something real, and no matter what the managers or business people tell you, stay true to who you are,’ ” Joey said. “That really validated what we’re trying to do.”

Their first single, "Cheater Cheater," won them a few admirers at country radio -- the video has scored more than a million and a half YouTube views -- and now they’ve got a new single, “Play the Song,” a bouncy honky-tonk swing tune on the very subject Judd cautioned them about. It’s accompanied by a witty video in which they parade through a series of offices in which different music execs tell them exactly what they need to change to make it big.

Maybe L.A. and Nashville aren't that different after all.

-- Randy Lewis 

Photo: Front Page Publicity