This is the first solo album from a man who lost his wife Joey in 2016. I didn’t know about Joey + Rory until I read the obituaries that outlined how beloved Joey Feek was. Rory has written tons of hit songs from the 90s and 2000s. I know the silly Some Beach which Blake Shelton took to number one.
A good introduction to Rory’s voice is on his portentous version of The Times They Are A-Changin’, with a traditional acoustic arrangement and a soft croon that actually reminds me of Garth Brooks.
Rory’s daughter Heidi harmonises softly on Out On A Limb, a track which sums up the album. Written by Rory’s open mic buddy Phillip Coleman, Rory sings of two characters – a gym owner and a singer ‘who had dreams of Broadway’ – who fail to carpe the diem. Likewise, Alison Krauss appears on a song written by Harlan Howard and Beth Neilsen Chapman called Time Won’t Tell, which was originally recorded by Sara Evans. It’s well chosen for Rory’s album because it’s a reminiscin’ song full of drama (‘Here’s where you turn around and walk away’) and advice (‘You never see the road you didn’t take’). Rory warns the listener to seize the moment, and with an arrangement as stunning as this, why wouldn’t you?
Much of this album has been used as impact tracks, two at a time, and features an impressive cast list of legacy acts like Ms Krauss whose presence lend the album gravitas. Dolly Parton lends her pipes to One Angel, which opens with the line ‘the dominoes kept falling in slow motion’ and is obviously about Joey (‘chemo’ and ‘poison pouring through your veins’), as Rory drinks three fingers of tequila to drown his sorrows. The arrangement is as divine as Joey, with strings and acoustic guitar accompanying Rory and Dolly. I imagine this was a tough song to record and will be accompanied by sniffles when he plays it live.
Vince Gill – and is there anyone Vince hasn’t worked with?? – pops up on opening track Me & The Blues, which even starts with Rory waking up this morning. Meanwhile, at the Small Talk Café, you can find Ricky and Sharon White Skaggs plucking a mandolin and harmonising respectively. There’s some fine pedal steel as well from (I imagine) Paul Franklin. The production is as warm as the inside of the café, and once again Rory infers that the death of his wife (or someone who ‘left’ his character) will be ‘big news’.
Lee Ann Womack is on Satan & Grandma, a deeply metaphorical song which talks about Grandma’s faith. Again, this is the sort of country song that listeners who aren’t Christian may feel is too religious, but the timbre of the song make it worth heeding, especially when Satan tries to tempt Rory into his car.
Time Machine was originally recorded in 1995 by Collin Raye and the feel is definitely of that era. ‘A few drinks and then she’ll be with him again’ is the key line in a song where ‘tomorrow will not be the cure’. Salvation, written by the same man who wrote Time Machine (Gary Burr), is about a truck driver who picked up the ‘not perfect yet’ narrator, who is told about the small statues of Jesus on his dashboard because the Saviour can ‘watch where I’m going cos he already knows where I’ve been’. The intersection between county and Christian music is clear, especially when a widow is the vocalist.
Spirituality and religion are also found on Rory’s own composition Met Him In A Motel Room, a proper three-minute movie where a master of his craft paints the scene and contrasts the community of church with Trisha Yearwood as the lady ‘with a long, long list of sins’. There’s a Bible in the bedside drawer which provides salvation, so now we know Whom the lady met in that room. It’s an extraordinary song that may well change a life.
The tone of the album is homespun, homely, hortatory, full of advice for instance about what to do ‘with that broken heart…Are you gonna hold on or let go or let it drive you insane?’ The title track, Gentleman, notes how ‘being cool is all the rage’ but traditional Rory, as per his raisin’ is (deep breath) ‘a faded jean, farmer tan, work boots, callous hand, redneck, blue-collar hard-workin’ gentle man’. He advises the listener to follow his example and the Isaacs, a Christian bluegrass group, back him up. The middle eight is gorgeous.
The Isaacs are also found on the passionate clarion call Someone Is Me, which takes the listener through a panoramic opening verse with cigarette butts and graffiti: ‘It’s easy to see this town’s going downhill fast,’ concludes Rory, who exhorts himself (and by extension the listener) to fix things up. The opening notes of Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home (written by Joe South) draw in the listener, with a bluegrass arrangement which matches the ‘Georgia sun’ showing Rory the way home. After all, travelling makes ‘God’s children weary’. Rory should expect standing ovations when he plays this collection of songs live, keeping his late wife’s memory alive.