Some things are meant to be. They’re bigger than us. Bigger than coincidence.
And the only way you can explain them is…
I’ve known Aaron Carnahan my whole life… he’s not just our manager, he’s also my cousin. His father Rod is my mother’s older brother.
We grew up separately, together. My family followed his across the country many times in search of work and a better life. We often found ourselves living in the same towns, and when times were really hard, even the same house.
When I was in my early teens, Uncle Rod let me tag along with Aaron and their family on a trip to Nashville, and we got to take a tour of the Ryman Auditorium. Aaron and I stood on that stage together looking out at the wooden pews and thought about all the history and the people who had sang there through the years – unaware that one day in the future, I would perform dozens of times on that very stage with my beautiful bride on the Grand Ol’ Opry and Aaron would be standing in the wings, cheering us on.
During our high school years, Aaron spent dozens of nights camped out beside me on the living room floor in our little house… through one particular winter when we had no heat and had to hang blankets over the doorways, because we also had no doors. It didn’t matter to him that just across town his family had a nice warm home and his room had a heated waterbed.
When I was seventeen, with going-to-college not an option… I joined the service. Aaron was standing beside me the day I left out on a bus, bound for Marine bootcamp on Parris Island.
Two years later, when his parents divorced, Aaron moved in with me and finished his senior year at a high school in South Carolina where I was stationed.
And though our lives separated for most of our adult lives, they paralleled each other’s in so many ways…
While in the service, I got married, had two daughters and was divorced within a couple of years. He too got married, had two daughters and divorced.
His third child, Greg, who is 25 now, has down syndrome. My third daughter, little Indiana with her sweet almond eyes, didn’t come along for me until many years later.
In the mid-90’s while I was still new to Tennessee, chasing my dreams and struggling to find myself and God, Aaron was 500 miles away in Illinois going through the same thing. Not long after he became a Christian, so did I. It was Aaron’s journey to faith that played a huge part in leading me to find mine.
His second marriage to Jill Hodel was the vision of marriage that I had always hoped for and dreamed of. So beside my bed each night, I prayed that God might bring someone special into my life, like He had brought to Aaron.
Not long after that, I was playing a show at the Bluebird Cafe and a beautiful brown-eyed girl with a boy’s name was in the audience listening.
Joey and I got married in 2002.
Aaron’s wife Jill grew up in the same farmhouse in Illinois her whole life. She has 4 siblings whose names all begin with letter J… Jeff, Jason, Jeremy and Jamie. My wife Joey grew up in the same farmhouse in Indiana her whole life and she has 4 siblings also. Their names are Jody, Julie, Justin and Jessie.
Aaron and Jill’s anniversary is June 15th. The same as ours. On his 5th wedding anniversary, Aaron was the best man at our wedding.
While still in medical school in Chicago, Jill was diagnosed with cancer. After surgery, and many rounds of chemo and radiation, she made a full-recovery and now Jill Carnahan is one the country’s leading functional medicine doctors.
When I called Aaron in May of 2014 and told him that the doctors suspected that Joey had a tumor on her cervix… he couldn’t take any more. I remember him crying on the phone and saying… “you can’t have this. This is where it has to stop…”. That was the one place where the paralleling of our lives was almost too much for him to bare.
A couple years after Joey and I were married but still long before Joey and I ever even thought of singing together… Aaron called me one night from a movie theater in Peoria. He said that he had just seen the Joaquin Phoenix/Reese Witherspoon film “Walk The Line”… and that sitting in the theater he had a vision that Joey and I were going to sing together one day and be a very successful singing duo, just like Johnny and June.
I didn’t believe him.
Some time later, when Joey’s music career wasn’t going anywhere and she was working as a waitress and about to give up on her dream… Aaron and I drove to Best Buy and bought an inexpensive video camera. We read the directions and over the next couple of days made a homemade audition video for Joey to submit to CMT’s upcoming TV show “Can You Duet”. That video was how we got on the show and it launched our music career and completely changed our lives.
That youtube video is also how Overstock.com found us and came to make the tv commercials we made with them at our farm.
Looking back now, it’s easy to see that Aaron was helping guide our career, long before he was ever managing us.
Near the end of 2011, we asked Aaron to be our manager. And so on faith… Aaron left the ministry in Colorado that he was part of and started ‘ministering’ to us and the people around us. He had no experience in the music business, no experience managing an artist, and knew no one in Nashville really, except us. But what he had was faith. And a belief that anything is possible. Coupled with a desire to help us reach our goals while living an honest and authentic life together.
What we’ve been able to accomplish since Aaron started working with us had been nothing short of amazing. Though he is technically our manager, he doesn’t really manage us or our career. Not really.
He just loves us.
He still lives in Boulder, CO, but is here in Indiana or Tennessee with us almost more than he’s home. He works tirelessly on our behalf. All day every day. He does our booking, negotiates our contracts, handles the press, our schedule and, and, and… and somehow still finds time to answer fan phone calls and emails – people wondering how Joey is doing and how they can help.
Over the last 4 years… Aaron has babysat, mowed our lawn, painted barns, fixed broken sewer lines, grocery shopped, killed skunks, weeded our garden, cleaned our house, and a million other big and small things that have nothing to do with his job – all to help make our dreams come true and our lives better.
A couple years ago he even played the main role of John in our music video for the song “Josephine”. He also co-wrote and produced the movie Josephine that I directed that will come out later this year.
He is a man of many, many hats.
On our ten-year wedding anniversary, we were on tour in Sweden with Dwight Yoakam. So we renewed our vows in a 300 year old chapel with Aaron and Heidi by our sides.
And now, here we are in 2016 and Aaron’s still managing… us… our music… and where life has led us. But mostly I think he’s just doing his best to manage the pain he feels. He wants so desperately to fix this for us, but he knows he can’t.
We are here because God wants us here. Aaron knows that. We all do.
I think he’s cried more tears over what is happening right now than all of us put together. If you’ve ever met Aaron, the one thing you learn right away, is that he doesn’t hold back his emotions. No one gets more excited… or hurts more for others than he does. It’s one of the many beautiful giftings that God has given him.
I woke up thinking about him today. And about the ties that have bound us together. What an incredible blessing Aaron has been to me all these years, and is to Joey and me now. There isn’t a moment that goes by that we aren’t thankful for him and all he’s done for us and with us.
Today is my best friend Aaron’s birthday. He’s 48 years young. Though he is with his wife in Colorado, and I am with mine here in Indiana… we know his heart is with us, and he knows our heart is there with him.
Aaron, Joey and I want tell you that we love you more than these, or any other words can say.
Happy birthday my friend.
Spring is my wife’s favorite season.
It always has been. It’s when she feels most alive. And this year, in spite of all she’s going through… is no exception.
My favorite season is Christmas… even though it’s not technically a season – it is for me. I start getting ready for it in about October. Joey is that way with springtime. Months before it actually gets here, she’s busy preparing for it.
Back home in Tennessee, she plants a big garden every spring behind our farmhouse. By mid-January each year, she’s ordering seeds online or going to the Farmers Coop to stock-pile some of her favorites. She’ll spend hours looking through catalogs and searching online for just the right ones.
Some seeds she will plant directly in the garden in late March or April, but some she likes to start early, inside the house. In years past, it’s not unusual for me to walk in the house and find our kitchen table completely filled with seed packets, potting soil and egg cartons… and Joey grinning ear-to-ear, truly in her element.
Joey likes to plant some of seedlings in clear divided-containers she gets from the store, but her first choice is to use natural containers that the good Lord has provided. So about two weeks ago, she had Jody, Julie and I start saving the shells from our eggs at breakfast each day. Then last week, after she sent us to the store for potting soil, she started her seeds.
We had a pretty good cold spell here in Indiana after that… but then two days ago, the sun broke through the clouds and it almost felt like spring was in the air. And to make it even better, when we woke up yesterday, some of Joey’s seedlings had sprouted… like little arms stretching after a long sleep, the tiny seeds that she had planted had broken through the surface of the soil and sprung to life.
It was a beautiful sight to see. Even our little Indy was in amazement.
It was her first time to really see her Mama’s green thumb in action.
As fun as it is to see the seeds coming to life, this isn’t just fun for Joey.
She does it because it’s important to her. Planting a garden and raising food that she can feed her family is part of who Joey is. That doesn’t stop just because you have cancer or are stuck in a bed for months-on-end. Life goes on. And what was important, is still important to her.
I love that about my wife. That, and a million other things.
Joey knows what matters most. From the day I met her, I knew that. She wasn’t like me… where what seemed most important changed from day to day or seemed to shift with what was on my mind or how full my plate was at the time. She knew what was important – what was really important… down in her heart of hearts. And she acted on it.
She still does.
My friend Tim Johnson and I sat down with Joey not long after we were married and wrote out a list with her of a lot of the things that were important to her. That list became a song. Our song. It’s probably the one that we’re most known for. It’s how we ended every episode of our tv show.
When we recorded that song, I think some people in music industry thought it was too simple-minded, not cutting edge enough. I felt just the opposite. I believed it was a bold statement – a woman singing about feeding her family a home-cooked meal, staying out of debt, or trying to be the best mother she can be. In a culture that seems to scream ‘more, more’ and ‘faster, faster’… I knew Joey wasn’t just singing about what was important to her, she was singing about what’s important to millions of wives and mothers and girls all around the world.
The song didn’t really make any kind of a dent in the Billboard charts, but it made a difference in a lot of lives. It still does.
We made that music video in the early spring of 2010 and of course, Joey’s seedlings are there, on a table close to the window in our kitchen. She’s tending to them with a cup of coffee in her hand.
Now, here we are in Indiana and her seedlings this year are on a ledge in the kitchen window.
They get plenty of sunlight and it won’t be long before she’ll have us transplanting them to larger pots. Her hope is that they will make the trip home with us to Tennessee. Whenever that is. To be planted in our garden, and grow and find their way onto our plates or into jars in our pantry.
I often sit beside her as she talks to me about the garden and tries to teach me the things I will need to know. Like how to tell when the watermelon are ripe and how many weeks apart to stagger planting the sweet corn.
I take notes in my laptop, but I don’t really want to know. Not really. I just want her to be able to be in the garden – this year and twenty more after it. I want her to be able to weed and water and hoe and harvest, and to be able to can and freeze the fruit of her labor and feel the pride that she’s felt in the past at knowing that “these sweet potatoes and beans and tomatoes are from our land”…from her hands.
That’s what I really want.
But still, I sit beside her and smile and listen and take notes. And I will keep the garden going. Joey’s garden.
And I’m sure in time, I will learn to love it too. Because she loved it. And part of her will be with us… in every seed we plant, and every vegetable we harvest … and every bite we take.
It’s morning now. Indiana is up and it’s time for breakfast.
Joey has asked that we keep saving egg-shells. She wants to plant more… enough for her sisters to take home and start plants of their own in their gardens.
It’s hard for me to believe that there will be life after this cold, hard winter… and I think Joey knows that.
So thin and gaunt, and more frail than ever, my wife is sowing her seeds – putting down roots in the soil of our lives and hearts.
Getting us ready for something that we can’t see right now for the tears in our eyes… something she might not even get to see at all.
Seeing our names listed on the Grammy nomination certificate we received recently, I found myself thinking a lot about the ‘plus-sign‘ in-between our names and why we chose not to use a ‘&‘ sign or a ‘and‘…
Back in early 2008, I was a full-time songwriter and Joey was an aspiring singer. We had been married for five years, but Joey’s dreams of following in her musical hero Dolly Parton’s footsteps had eluded her. She had all-but-given-up on music and was working every day at Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, our little family-owned cafe Joey had started with my sister just down the road from our farmhouse.
Little did she know that while she waiting on tables… God was waiting for the right timing to make her dreams come true.
I wrote in another blog post a good while back in more detail about how we got our start singing together. About how a friend of a friend recommended that we try out for “Can You Duet”, a new CMT reality music competition show that was looking for America’s next great country duo. About how I was nervous and skeptical about it. And also how, though Joey and I didn’t have a tv and didn’t want to be on one, my best-friend and cousin Aaron (who’s our manager now) and I made a little homemade video about our lives and music up to that point and sent it in to the producers to try to get a spot on the show.
When we found out we had made it through the first round of auditions, they asked us what our stage name was going to be. I told Joey that I think we should tell them “Joey+Rory”, because that’s what it actually was…
You + Me = whatever this is going to be.
She agreed. And though it might have been a bit confusing to others, the plus-sign made sense to us, and that’s all that mattered. And so our career singing together started off with a bang…
Now all these years later, as I sit here with my laptop at the dining room table and my beautiful wife sleeping peacefully in the next room… I find myself looking back at that moment.
We had no idea back then that our lives were about to change. Or all the places our music would take us and all the dreams that would come true for Joey. And for me.
In hindsight, I think I was right about the plus-sign in Joey+Rory, but not about the math.
One-plus-one does not equal two. It actually equals much, much more.
And the plus-sign? I’ve come to realize through the years that it’s not what I thought it was either. It’s more too.
Without know it, what we were actually adding into the equation that day in 2008… was God. It was faith that we added – a willingness to trust Him and be okay with whatever He had in store. I think that’s where the power is. There’s nothing magical about Joey and I together. We bring our skills and talents into this union, but God brings the magic. He takes those gifts and adds in His timing and mixes it with all the years of joy and hardship and smiles and pain we’ve had… and He makes something bigger.
We’ve seen it happen in our lives in dozens of other ways too. Each time Joey and I have made a conscious choice to “add” someone else into our lives, God uses His mathematics to turn us+others into something more beautiful than we could’ve ever experienced on our own. It’s easy to see that with Marcy, Aaron, Russdriver, Sandy, Gabe, Julie, Thomas, Keith… the list goes on and on.
And it’s not just people. It’s time. When the plus-sign has been giving away the most precious thing that we have – our time – to others. It too turns into something bigger. And our world gets better.
My wife will tell you… I really do believe in magic. Not the kind with cards tricks or rabbits being pulled out of hats, but the kind that God does – where He brings something out of you and your life that you never-in-a-million-years thought was possible…
Like our beautiful marriage… or our music career…
or the greatest magic of all in our lives… our little Indiana. She’s the most precious addition that God has given us.
But why? Why would He give us such an incredible addition, and allow it to be followed by such a heartbreaking subtraction?
I cannot even begin to imagine going home to Tennessee without Joey, or living my life and raising Indy without her… but chances are, that day is coming.
Joey and I both have questions. Lots of them. Hard questions that we don’t have any answers for. But still, we have faith – we choose to believe. I think that’s why they call it faith. If we knew all the answers, no faith would be required.
And so Joey and I do our best each day to only see the plus’s in our life.
…like all the extra days and weeks that we’ve been given together (the doctors here didn’t expect Joey to make it to Thanksgiving, and here we are near the end of January), and all the beautiful conversations and time we’ve had with her family. And the amazing gift of life-slowing-down-to-a-crawl and only having and needing THIS moment in time. And of course, the incredible amount of love and support that the whole world has shown for us during this special time.
And every morning, when our little one wakes and I pick her up from her crib and take her in to see her mama – and her sleepy little almond eyes look into ours, once more we see…
the amazing power of the plus-sign.
Joey+Rory = Indy
There is a right time to say goodbye. Today isn’t that day.
Joey’s best friend Julie has been here for a week and was supposed to leave this evening and fly back home to Oregon where she and her husband Joe live. But this morning as I sat beside my wife, and Julie started packing her things… Joey’s tears began to fall.
She was inconsolable.
I put my arms around her and asked what was wrong. As her lips quivered and she tried to catch her breath, the tears streamed her cheeks and Joey said, “I don’t think I will ever see her again”…
Julie showed up in our lives about seven or eight years ago. I think it was at our first “Bib & Buckle Festival” – an outdoor concert that invites fans from all across the country to spend an evening in concert with us where we live. There were a few hundred people that came to that first festival and Joe and Julie Zamboldi were part of that group. In the coming years, we would see them at other concerts that we played all around the country. They would have traveled from their home in Washington State to Utah, California, Wyoming or some other far off place, just to see us perform.
It is safe to say that Julie is our biggest fan.
In time, we got to know Joe and Julie and we all became friends. We would invite them to private events and even to stay with us when they were in Tennessee. It turns out that Julie had lost two of her best girlfriends to cancer and it had hurt and scarred her, and somehow our music was a part of her healing.
Through the years my wife and Julie became very close.
A couple years ago,when we decided to take a year off, we asked Julie to run our fan club and she is who has kept everyone online updated on our behalf during that time and since. She posts the music business stuff on Facebook that I don’t feel comfortable sharing.
Julie has been at pretty much every home Farmhouse Concert that we’ve played and she is the one who mails out our newsletters and Christmas cards and has not only worked hard on behalf… she’s also loves us deeply.
Like an angel from heaven, it was as if God sent Julie to us. To her. But none of us exactly knew why, until the cancer showed up again this summer.
In October, when we made the important trip to bring Joey up here to Indiana to get to see her family for a few days (that has turned into almost 3 months), Julie was on the bus. And a month later as Joey’s conditioned worsened, she was still right by Joey’s side.
When Joey’s sisters and Daddy cut their hair off to support her… it was Julie who handed me the clippers and sat in the chair and asked me to “make her hair fall off” first.
Julie is Joey’s best friend.
I didn’t know that for a long time, but she is.
When I was writing one of the first difficult blog posts about Joey’s chemo and radiation not working… I wrote about Joey’s best friend Julie. I labored over the ‘best‘ part of that line for a long time. As I’ve mentioned, I’m fiercely protective of my wife, and Joey has many close friends who love her and would do anything for her, not to mention her three sisters. So to choose one person and write ‘best friend’ for her was difficult for me – I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when they would possibly read the post and I also didn’t want to choose Joey’s best friend for her. But I remember walking down the road with our manager Aaron and telling him my concerns and him just listening for a long time. Then, he stopped and looked at me and said, “Rory, Julie’s traveled 2,500 miles…put her life on hold… and sat by Joey’s side for weeks and weeks at a time – if that isn’t what a best friend does, I don’t know what is”.
He was right. So so right.
And now, here we are. Months later and as Joey’s condition has continued to improve, then worsen, again and again… Julie has made three trips home to Washington and is back here with us again. She’s been here all week, helping Joey’s sister Jody take care of my wife and me and everyone else. She cooks, she cleans, changes the baby’s diaper, and does any and everything else that she can find to do that needs to be done while we’re living here out of suitcases
… not waiting for someone we love to die. But helping the woman we all love to live.
And so at the Indianapolis airport this evening , a plane will take off and Saint Jules (as Joey’s daddy calls her) won’t be on it. Instead, she will be be with her best friend.
And as God would have it, the tables have turned and now it’s easy to see…
Joey and I are Julie’s biggest fans.
I don’t know where Indy gets her personality from.
Joey says it’s from me. I’m not sure I believe her. But no matter… one thing is for sure, our little one has one of the most expressive little faces I’ve ever seen.
I took a trip to Kohls last week and was supposed to buy her a couple of new outfits. She has grown out of most of her clothes and since it’s getting colder here, she needed some warm things to wear. I was on a mission. And I did good until I got to the check-out and saw something on a nearby rack with the word ‘Indiana’ on it.
Somehow what caught my eyes made it’s way into our cart and home with us.
I’m so glad it did.
A day or so later, I sat Indy on Joey’s bed so she could spend a few minutes with her mama. Joey had had some tough days and the decline of her condition was weighing heavy on her and all of our minds.
But in a matter of minutes, Indy had her mama laughing out loud…
Like she did that day in August at the hospital in Atlanta when Joey was starting chemo, I think our baby is continuing to cheer her mama on in her fight – the best way she knows how…
By making her smile.