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the name game

* a chapter from my 2016 memoir “THIS LIFE I LIVE”.


“For years I didn’t use my last name… for lots of reasons.

First off, it was a name that was easy for kids to make fun of in school, and as I got older, it was much the same. Secondly, when I was growing up my father was a bit of rounder, and though I know he meant well, he didn’t leave much of a legacy for our last name. I had no idea where the name came from or even where the people in past generations who used it came from. So when I moved to Nashville in ’95 and was about to sign a publishing deal, as the lady handed me the pen to sign—and potentially etch my name in stone on albums and CDs if I ever had any success—I asked her, “Should I use my last name Feek or my middle name Lee?”

She kinda laughed and said, “Feek? That’s the stupidest name I’ve ever heard. Definitely use Lee.”

So I became Rory Lee, songwriter. For the first few years in town, everyone knew me that way. And when I had my first hit song, that’s the name that’s on the back of the CD.

But then Joey and I got married, and the name became an issue. It had actually become a concern a couple years before that, as I stood at the end of our driveway after buying the farmhouse, trying to decide whether to use Lee on the mailbox or Feek. I pondered that one for a long time and finally settled on Lee.

When we stood at the altar and took those vows together, Joey also vowed to take my name and wear it proudly. But she asked me if she could continue being Joey Martin for her music career. I was leery of her doing that and told her so. She just listened and didn’t really say anything. Sometime during our honeymoon, though, the subject of her using her maiden name came to a head. We were talking about her music career, and I told her again that I thought she should use Feek and not Martin. The main reason I felt that way was because I was insecure about losing her to the music business or someone else, and I secretly thought that saddling her with my name would let people know that she was taken. (She had to be . . . or why else would she have a name like that?) It’s embarrassing to admit that now. But it’s true.

Somewhere in the middle of our blissful honeymoon and arguments over careers, kids, life, and a million other things we hadn’t worked out before saying I do, she said again, “I will gladly take your name and wear it proudly every day of my life, but I would like to be able to go by Joey Martin for my dad and my family when I’m singing.”

The conversation got heated, and I think there might have been some tears involved. I put my foot down and said, “No. It’s not right.” Then she looked at me and said, “How can you say that, when you don’t even use your own last name?” I hadn’t thought of that. But she had and rightly so.

I told her that was different, but I knew it wasn’t. She had me cornered. I caved and gave my blessing for her to use her maiden name, and we dropped the subject. For years we never mentioned it again. Not once.

But then one day in a songwriting appointment with Allen Shamblin, the name problem showed up again. Allen had co-written Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Miranda Lambert’s “The House that Built Me” and was an exceptionally profound thinker and man of faith. He started telling me about a recent trip back home to Texas that he’d taken and how their local church had had a revival that shook the town to the core. People were coming to Christ, and change was happening in the congregation like never before. It had all started with the pastor standing in front of the congregation one morning and facing his greatest fear. He reached up and removed the toupee that he had worn for years. Allen said everyone knew the pastor wore one, but no one ever said anything out of respect. They could sense that it was a big deal for him. But when he found the courage to get out from under the shame that he’d been carrying around, it caused a change reaction in the lives of the people sitting in the pews. It was a great story, and I think we wrote a song about it, or part of one. But afterward, I drove home that evening deep in thought.

A few hours later, after the kids went to bed, Joey and I sat on the bed together, and I started weeping. She didn’t understand what was wrong, so I told her. “I have to start using my last name,” I said. “It’s killing me.” I told her how I was leaving no legacy for our kids, and that now that they were teenagers, people didn’t know whether they were Heidi and Hopie Lee or Feek. Not only did I not have any pride in my last name; I wasn’t instilling any in them. And that was wrong. Joey knew it was a big deal to me. We cried together and prayed together. I nervously told God that I needed His help to face my fear, and though I would probably be undoing all the progress I’d made building a name for myself in Nashville as a songwriter, I was putting it in His hands. I believed that something good would come of it.

From that moment on I started introducing myself as Rory Feek and claiming what was rightly mine. The funny thing is that no one cared. I mean, no one. It was all in my head. As a matter of fact, a few weeks later I told the story to one of my industry friends, and he said, “Man, Rory Feek is an awesome name.” He actually liked it better. And so I started liking it better too.

Before long I found that God took that commitment I made and lifted my name higher than it had ever been lifted before. Amazing things have come to Rory Feek that Rory Lee would’ve never dreamed possible. And I believe it’s because I made that change and faced that fear. I learned that on the other side of fear is joy and blessing and, even more so, peace. “

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