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the power of the plus-sign

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‘…

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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.

Something better.

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

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st. jules

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”…

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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.

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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.

Especially Joey.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

cheers

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…

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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.

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when I’m gone

Joey and I have always tried to record songs that matter to us – songs that we can relate to in a personal way.

Some are songs we’ve written and some we’ve found.  More times than not, they’re songs about us – about our lives.  But from time to time, a song we record comes to life in a way we never imagined.

Years ago, our friend Sandy Lawrence wrote a song for her mother who she was caring for as she was passing away.  It was something she said she wrote to help her through her feelings – to help her heal.

In 2012, Joey and I were in the studio recording a new album.  This record was going to be called His and Hers and different than the ones we’d made before where Joey sang every song and I just sang harmony… on this record she wanted me to sing half of the songs.  And so I did.

As we were looking for and choosing the 12 songs that would go on the new record, we both knew that we wanted one of them to be a Sandy Lawrence song.  Sandy was a undiscovered songwriter who had moved to Nashville twenty-something years ago and knocked on a thousand un-opened doors on Music Row.  In her late 50’s now, working at a library and helping her husband Cowboy Jack take care of the horses at their small ranch south of Franklin- we had come to know and love the songs that Sandy wrote.  Different than most songwriters in Nashville where co-writing runs rampant, Sandy writes hers alone.  And they’re brilliant.

And maybe by chance, by recording one of her songs… we could change Sandy’s life and the world could discover what a gift she has.  That’s our favorite part of recording other people’s songs.

Sitting in the studio with my laptop, I went through a few of the songs that we liked and then came across a new one that Sandy had sent me.  It was her work-tape of “When I’m Gone”.   I played it for Joey.

She listened as her tears fell.

 

Ten minutes later, our producer Gary Paczosa, Joey and I were gathered around Gordon Mote and his piano – finding Joey’s key to record the song in.  Gordon is blind and though he can’t see with his eyes… his gift of sight is much stronger than ours.  It was as if he could see what this song would one day become and he laid his fingers on the keys and softly started playing the intro notes on the piano that you hear now.

We wept again.

Fast forward a few months and we were at our farm in the big barn making a music video for When I’m Gone.  We knew the recording was special and our hope was that the song’s message might help someone who is in the midst of losing someone they love or who has already lost someone and are trying to make sense of it all.

Someone like me… and my girls.  And Joey’s mama and daddy.  And three sisters.  And all our friends.

And you.

The day we made the video, our plans were to just have Joey and I sing the song in front of the cameras and Sandy play piano in the background.  We lit candles and transformed our barn into a beautiful studio set.  But an hour or two before shooting started, Gabe and Aaron and BA came to me and said we have an idea… they said, “what if you’re the one who has lost someone and Joey’s singing to you?”

I didn’t like it.

I told them so.  It hit too close to home.

But as they continued to talk and I listened… I realized that “yes, of course.  We have to make it that way.  It’s the story in the song”.

It wasn’t what I wanted… but it’s what the song wanted.   And though it scared me for us to be that vulnerable, it was also what our whole lives and music career was about – being real… being honest.

And so the cameras rolled and both Joey and I let us ourselves imagine what it would be like if she had to leave this world and I was left behind without her…

 

And now, here I sit beside my dying wife.

I don’t say those words lightly.  As a matter-of-fact, I haven’t said them at all.  But my beautiful bride has said them to me in these couple of days.  Her pain and discomfort has continued to increase daily and so has the morphine to help her be comfortable.  The dosage she’s needed to keep the pain away has quadrupled in the last four days.

I’d like to tell you that she’s doing great and is going to beat this thing.  But I can’t.

Yesterday with tears in her eyes and mine, Joey held my hand and told me that she has been having serious talks with Jesus.  She said she told him that if He’s ready to take her… she’s ready to come home.

Our ‘make-believe’ song and video seems to be coming true.

Some call it ‘life imitating art’.  I don’t.

I call it God.

He knew I would need her to tell me goodbye… not just once, but a thousand times.  And I’d need to know that no matter how much time passes, that she loves me still.  And He made it so that if I needed to be reminded of her beautiful life and heart and voice… she would only be a ‘click’ away.

Am I angry at the irony of the song?   No.  How could I be?

How many men who are losing the woman they love get a gift like that?  None that I know of.

Joey and I have asked to have “When I’m Gone” added to our new “Hymns That Are Important To Us” album that’s coming out in a couple of weeks in Cracker Barrel and most other places all around the country.  It’s not a classic hymn, but to us it is.

It is a very special song, filled with hope and love.  And in time, I believe it will have the power to help heal a million broken hearts…

Even mine.

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seeing the light

The holidays have been a roller-coaster for my bride.  She’s had some good days, some bad days – some wonderful moments, and some deep pain that the morphine just couldn’t seem to touch.  How could it… it wasn’t that kind of pain.

They say that at Christmas time emotions run high, and you feel more than you do the rest of the year.  I think that’s probably true.  Though she managed a smile most of the time, Joey’s heart was heavy and she was feeling some things she hadn’t before…

A sadness.  A fear of the unknown.  And even some anger – not at God, just at her situation I suppose.  It’s not easy for her to be as excited about what the new year holds in store as it was last year.

But she says she’s seen the light, and she’s over that now…

If you don’t know who Bill Gaither and his wife Gloria are, you should take a moment and look them up.  They’re legendary songwriters and artists in the gospel music world.  Bill’s song “He Touched Me” has been recorded by everyone and his brother, including Elvis.  And the hymnals in most churches around the country are filled with pages and pages of their songs of faith, inspiration and hope.  Songs like “Because He Lives”, “Something Beautiful” and “Jesus, There’s Just Something About That Name” to name a few.

But before Bill made the history books, he was an English teacher in the local high school here in Joey’s hometown, and Gloria taught French.  Both Joey’s daddy and mama were students of theirs in the late 1960’s.  And though in the past 50 years the Gaithers have grown a music empire and are known the world-over, they still live in the same small town and are a part of every day life here in Alexandria.

Especially ours lately…

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Bill comes to see Joey just about every day, when he’s not on the road.  We’ll get a knock on the door in the morning or early afternoon, and next thing you know Bill will be parked in a chair beside Joey’s bed, telling her jokes and stories about days long-past and he’ll have Joey and all of us laughing and smiling ’til our faces hurt.

I think he just wants to brighten Joey’s day and create as much joy for her as he can.  We all do.

A week or so ago, just before Christmas – on the other side of the pond… we noticed a big fire burning by the gazebo.

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From Joey’s bedroom window, we could see the beautiful flames dancing across the water.

It was magical.

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As I sat beside my wife watching… my cell-phone rang.  I picked it up.

“Can she see it?”, the deep voice said.

“Yes Bill, it’s beautiful”.  I answered – knowing that he had built the fire, hoping she could see if from her window.

“Is she smiling?”,  Mr Gaither asked.

I looked over at Joey watching the flames, beaming ear-to-ear… and found myself doing the same thing.

“We all are Bill”.

That’s the thing about someone burning with passion – the whole world can see their light.  They have something that shines so bright inside them, others can’t help but notice it in their eyes and on their faces and in their actions.  They use their lives to provide some light in a dark world that can be overwhelming and scary at times.

Bill has sure shined his light on us.

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The last couple of albums and DVD’s we’ve made have been with Bill and the Gaither organization.  Our new Hymns record coming out next month is with them too.  For each project, Bill has personally sat down and interviewed us on-camera and asked us questions about the music we’ve made and about our lives.

But what he’s actually doing in those moments is wrapping his arms around us, and doing all he can to shine a light on us for the world to see.

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He uses his light to start a flame for us…

With hopes that someday we might use our light to shine on others.

And he doesn’t just do that for us, he’s done it for dozens, if not hundreds of up-and-coming and past-their-prime artists throughout his career.

After all this time, Bill’s still a teacher at heart.  Most conversations that we have with him, he’s sharing things he’s learned – mistakes he’s made and wisdom he’s gleamed from a life-time of making music that he loves and loving the ones he has been given the chance to make music with.

Gloria is the same way.  She has a way with words that most of us will never have.  In early November when this little town of Alexandria held a prayer vigil for my wife, Gloria and Bill were one of hundreds who stood out on the street in the rain and lifted Joey up to Lord in prayer.

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With candles, they all gathered and lit a fire that I have a feeling will keep burning long after Joey’s gone.  After I’m gone.

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Thank you Bill.  Thank you Gloria.  Thank you everyone.

We are all seeing the light.