Married in 2002, country and Christian duo Joey & Rory were partners long before they signed their first record deal in 2008. The pair performed and recorded together through seven albums (and the birth of their daughter Indiana Boon, who has Down syndrome, in 2014) — the most recent of which, Hymns (Farmhouse/Gaither/Capitol CMG), hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200. Tragically, their most successful album to date coincided with a terrible loss: Joey Feek, diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, died in hospice on March 4 at age 40. Husband Rory Feek, 51, sat down with Billboard — his first interview since Joey’s death — in the kitchen of the couple’s Tennessee farmhouse, where a Bible rests on the table, a barn-turned-concert hall is next door and Joey’s resting place — per her request — is in the backyard.
Billboard: Hymns debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums and Top Christian Albums charts. Everyone was rooting for that album, but its success was bittersweet — what was that like?
Hearing how well the album did meant a lot to us, because Joey’s legacy and music could reach more people. Also financially it helped us to not have to worry, which has been a blessing. But the biggest thing was that we saw how God was working and using the music in such an incredible way. Joey’s response [to the chart news] was, “God is going to get the glory.” The truth is, that’s the only way to explain it. God created a situation where it all came together, and that was beautiful to be a part of — still is.
You recorded Hymns as Joey was going through chemotherapy. Was it hard to focus on the album?
No, because that’s what she loved: to sing and make music. Hymns was important to her — the only hard part was finding time to do it.
Some of the sessions you did in hotel rooms, right?
Just the vocals. Because that’s where we were, and had time. I also liked how in the midst of all these hours in a hospital, she could experience music — while the baby was taking a nap, I could hit record and capture her voice there in that moment. Joey and I believe in the magic of songwriting, of performing and of living your life — that you never know what’s just around the corner. It may not always be the amazing things you dreamed of, but sometimes it is. I think both her and I feel like even though this chapter is a hard one to go alone, it’s where we’re supposed to be.
Did you know at the time it might be your last project together?
No — we had unwavering hope, so we never really thought like that. We did shows every month, all the way through. I knew it was hard for her, but we always treated everything like, “This is a season, and we’re going to get better.” She kept wanting to sing, even when it was hard for her to get onstage. Not because she wanted to make money or get applause, but because she wanted to share her music.
As you grieve, has the music you made together brought you peace?
I’d say it brings me a lot of peace. I listen and watch everything — it’s part of the process for me. I don’t want to hide from her, or her memory, or those feelings. I want to embrace them and keep her as close to me as possible. Every morning about 5:30, Indiana and I get up, and quite often I play her the Hymns record. Sometimes we’ll listen and it’ll make us smile. Indiana will do sign language to “Jesus Loves Me,” just like she would with her mother. And then there are other times … I’m making eggs, and emotional, and Indy doesn’t quite understand it. But that’s part of it — it’s OK. I listen to it a lot, actually. I watch through our videos a lot. Being able to watch the videos, she’s still alive. Hearing the music, she’s still alive.
It seems that your faith has not been rattled through this process.
Still solid. I don’t understand everything. I don’t understand all of the Bible, nor did my wife — but I understand what faith is, and what faith requires. Faith requires faith, and that never really stops. She had a very strong faith, and that never wavered. The same thing with me: Just because things don’t work out the way that you hoped they would, doesn’t mean that God isn’t still in charge. It’s still his plans and not ours, so I don’t feel like my faith has wavered at all.
How does it feel to have inspired so many people by being open about Joey’s battle with cancer?
We don’t really dwell on that — we’re just thankful to be a part of something good. That’s all we ever want to do. In particular, we want to be part of something good in a marriage. We don’t want it to just look good on the outside, for our faith to look strong. We want it to be strong — we’re always working on that.
Are you writing anything new?
No, I haven’t written in more than two years. No guitars. I’m producing a Bradley Walker record. Joey actually requested that he perform at her graveside service; he sang [Joey & Rory’s] “Leave It There.” The Gaithers [founders of Spring House Music Group] heard him sing and gave him the opportunity to record this album. It’s pretty magical that [the deal] came from him singing at my wife’s service, that I get to be a part of that — to lift up someone we love.
This article originally appeared in the May 20 issue of Billboard.