On Sunday evening, Rory Feek accepted a Grammy award for “Hymns That Are Important to Us,” the last album he made with his late wife, Joey. For several years, Joey + Rory were a beloved bluegrass duo, known for their soulful music, for their quirky look (bib overalls are Rory’s trademark), and for the blog where Rory chronicled their life with daughter Indiana, who has Down syndrome. First thousands, then millions followed Joey’s battle with cancer, as national media picked up the story.
Through it all, the family’s faith sustained them. As Rory recalled in his Grammy acceptance speech, singing the hymns that mattered to her were a dream of Joey’s, and “she sang her vocals in hotel rooms while she did chemo and radiation.”
In his new book, “This Life I Live,” he expands on this: “She wanted to make that record. It was important to her. To sing those songs and have them recorded for Indiana and for our older girls and for the whole world to hear. They had helped her and were helping her now. Maybe they could help others.” That was who Joey was, as an artist and as a person.
Rory told the story of his and Joey’s marriage in the recent documentary “To Joey, with Love,” made up largely of video footage he shot during Joey’s final months. (I interviewed him about that film last fall.) In the new book, he goes far deeper, sharing stories from his own past to highlight just how remarkable it was that a man like him was able to live out a great love story with a woman as strong and inspiring as Joey.
He had few examples to follow: As he grew up, his father was rarely available and his mother struggled through a succession of bad relationships. Rory openly admits that for a long time, he followed in their footsteps. Sharing stories of the many romantic relationships in his life that went bad — including the marriage that left him a single dad raising two girls, Heidi and Hopie — he openly accepts his share of the blame.
After one especially disastrous story, Rory writes that he had to share it “so you can understand how incredible it is that I am . . . famous for loving my wife. It’s an incredible thing to be known for that, but it’s even more incredible knowing where I came from, knowing what I could’ve been known for. That is the power of change. Of God.”
This is what stands out about Rory and Joey’s story. Rory never suggests that it was “the love of a good woman” that saved him, as the old cliché would have it. He’s very clear that it was God who redeemed him from his sinful, broken life, turned him around, and prepared him to be the kind of man who could love a woman like Joey.
For her part, Joey had been a Christian for most of her life. But when Rory confessed his past to her, she was accepting and forgiving. She even offered to wear a ring that he had once given to a former girlfriend as her engagement ring. While he was thinking, “She should be mad . . . that I even still have such a thing,” Joey’s thoughts were on a different level entirely: “Joey treated me as though I had done something good by buying that ring and hanging on to it . . . as if I had just given it to the wrong person. She made me feel like all the ring needed was time . . . to find the right left hand.”
Of course, even Joey wasn’t perfect, and their marriage wasn’t perfect. Rory chronicles some of their greatest fears, weaknesses, disagreements, and disappointments. But ultimately, it was God who made the difference, helping them to find healing and reconciliation and to set the example they wanted to set for their daughters. It was He who gave them the gift of a musical career and another child, and it was He who held them together in those last difficult months of Joey’s life.
The Feeks aren’t a family that has just paid lip service to faith; they’ve lived it. Even now that Joey is gone, the faith and love that kept them both going is still visible, as Rory recounts their story with humility, honesty, and gratitude. Ultimately, their story is a striking reminder that romantic love, wonderful as it is, is not what redeems us — that even the most loving couple needs a love and a redemption that comes from outside themselves.
Image copyright W Publishing Group. Review copy obtained via The Press House.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.