Rory Feek's always bared his heart and soul in a sincere way, whether he's done so as a Nashville songwriter, a member of husband-wife duo Joey + Rory, a reality TV star, a proponent of homesteading or a person of faith who's used his online platform to chronicle how he's coped with unspeakable loss.
This well-balanced dual existence as a small-town dweller and fully-transparent celebrity marks Gentle Man (out June 18 via Gaither Music Group), Rory's first solo album since the 2016 loss of his wife, Joey. Family friends and prolific gospel songwriters Bill and Gloria Gaither amplify Rory's messages of faith, hope and love in this latest chapter of the Feek story, with assists from the bluegrass and country music communities.
The Gaither family's role in sharing a solo debut with a star-studded list of special guests is the latest fruit from the longstanding Bill and Rory Mutual Admiration Society.
"My wife and I came and sat down and kind of had a meeting with him," Rory says of his first in-depth conversation with Bill. "We met with him in his office in Indiana here in Alexandria. We just visited for a while. Joey didn't really have anything going on with her music career. I think we were just visiting with him about the idea of maybe her doing some stuff with the Gaither's then. I was still just writing songs, and she was an aspiring artist. We were still a few years from ever considering singing together. And we just had a great visit, and he kind of found out I was a country songwriter.
"The thing I remember the most is how different he was than I expected him to be because the first song that he talked about... Well, two songs: He talked about the song called 'The Baptism of Jesse Taylor,' which I knew and I really liked, but the one he talked about the most was an old Tom T. Hall song called '(Margie's at) the Lincoln Park Inn.' It was a hit, maybe in the '60s, by Bobby Bare," Rory continues. "I knew that song really well, but what's funny is it's a cheating song. For Bill, the first thing he wants to talk about is what a great song this is and what an honest story it told. It's basically about a guy at home, fixing his little boy's bike while his wife is baking cookies. Some friends are coming over this evening, and the girl he cheats with is waiting in a hotel room for him. It was just so cool because this guy's super real at the same time that he has a strong faith."
Rory still marvels at how curious someone as renown as Bill remains about new acquaintances.
"He's done everything and met everybody that you could possibly meet, yet he's interested in everybody," Rory explains. "He's interested in everything and everyone. He truly cares. He's got a real passion for life that never seems to dim, even at 85. It doesn't seem to dim at all. I don't see that curiosity in a lot of people, and particular in celebrity folks like that."
Gloria + Bill are as inseparable in country and gospel fans' minds as Joey + Rory, and both halves of the Gaither equation have been guiding lights in Rory's creative and spiritual journey.
"When we had a little girl, Indiana, I started writing a blog and stopped writing songs and stuff," Rory says. "Gloria took a real interest in my writing. She really was a big encourager of not just my songwriting but my prose, my writing my blog and then writing books and then things like that. She really, really supported that and saw something there before most people did."
The greatest show of love between the Gaither and Feek families came when Joey needed to be closer to home as she battled cancer.
"They offered their place for us to stay during that time, so we lived across the pond from them for a few months," Rory explains. "We would see Gloria and Bill a lot. Bill in particular, he came over and visited Joey a lot. He would invite me to his house and we'd build a big fire and visit and hang out in the cold. Joey could see it from her window. It was very special."
Staying in the home on the Gaither property where Gloria's parents spent the twilights of their lives was a Godsend for Joey and her loved ones.
"We were staying at Joey's mom's house, and there just isn't that much room in the farmhouse," Rory adds. "This was a great way for her to still be home and gather all the family around her for months and have room. And also the family could have a break. They could go home and it'd just be Joey and I and Indiana, and that was real important to us, too."
Rory's Gaither-endorsed return to the studio teamed him with producers Matt Johnson and Ben Isaacs plus a who's who of Nashville pickers and singers, from Joey's longtime favorite Dolly Parton on down.
"I'd like to think it's much more than a record we've made," Rory says. "It's another chapter in our lives that is unfolding and these people are willing to be part of it. It's pretty fantastic. My guess would be the only reason that they're willing to be part of it, whether I've known it or Joey's known it or not, [is because] they've been following along with the other chapters we've written and they're willing to come alongside and be part of this chapter. That's real special to me because I don't know any of them. I don't know Dolly Parton, I don't know Lee Ann Womack or Alison Krauss. I've met Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs, but I don't really know them. So for them to be on this record is really special to me and to Ben and Matt and my family."
Trisha Yearwood guest-appears on album highlight "Met Him in a Motel Room'--a story way different from the one Tom T. wrote about Margie--while Sharon White Skaggs and her husband Ricky join Rory on "Small Talk Cafe."
Gentle Man Track Listing:
1. "Me & The Blues" with Vince Gill
4. "The Times They Are A-Changin'"
5. "Small Talk Café" with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White Skaggs
6. "Satan and Grandma" with Lee Ann Womack
7. "Time Machine"
8. "Someone Is Me"
9. "Met Him in a Motel Room" with Trisha Yearwood
10. "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home"
11. "Time Won't Tell" with Alison Krauss
12. "Out On A Limb"
13. "Whatcha Gonna Do With That Broken Heart"
14. "One Angel" with Dolly Parton