Rory Feek Interview: ‘Some of my biggest influences are from films.’

The chart topping singer/songwriter, author and record label owner discusses his influences, approach to writing and what we can learn from FORREST GUMP.

How do you approach a new story in your songs and books?

In songs, I usually start with an opening line or idea and let the song unfold in front of me. Because it’s a short-form medium and I am well-versed in song structure, it doesn’t require the kind of outlining that writing a script or novel does. And it’s been my experience that it actually works best without it. The potential for the song to have profound meaning is actually higher when I don’t know where it’s going. I am of course, not only the author, but also the first reader, discovering and learning about the character and what they have to say in real time.

My favorite songs are the ones that end up in a place I never dreamed of, that teach me something about myself or about life. If I let the story and the characters lead, nine times out of ten, they’ll write something better than I could have if I’d outlined it before writing. But it’s my job to make sure the structure stays grounded, even when the story’s not.

On the other hand, I tried to do the same thing with screenwriting and so far it’s been a disaster. Yes, there’s some magic and moments I didn’t expect, but it’s almost impossible for there to be any kind of structure that makes sense in the bigger picture. I think it has to do with the complexity of longer-form storytelling.

“I tried to do the same thing with screenwriting and so far it’s been a disaster.”

It’s my contention that all writing is autobiographical, regardless of genre. You as a writer make choices about that material that only you would make as a result of who you are – your ethos; you reveal who you are, your point of view on life and your humanity, or lack of it. Do you think this is true of both music and the written word?

For me, it is. Even when I’m writing songs or stories about imaginary characters living imaginary lives, they are heavily influenced by who I am and how I see life. For years, I was unaware that it was happening. I tried hard to separate myself from my work, and yet in hindsight, over time, it became very easy to see that who I am is a very big part of who they are. At times I’m writing about who I want to be, more than who I am. The love story I wanted to be part of, rather than the lack of love I was experiencing. A friend of mine told me a while back that our writing is done honestly and reveals our value system. And I think he’s right.

“I felt that it was important to share the shadows and dark parts of my life so the reader could have real perspective on what the love story is and means to me.”

What compelled you to share your story with Joey in This Life I Live?

Two things actually. First, I’d always wanted to write a book. After decades of songwriting and a few years of writing a blog, I had developed a ‘voice’ and way of seeing life that was uniquely mine.

The other part of it had to do with the back-story. Over time God had given us an incredible story that millions of people had become aware of and followed. But what most of them had seen and read was just the magical love story part. The “almost too good to be true” relationship that Joey and I had, and national media picked up on, near the end of her life. When the opportunity came around to write the book, I wanted to share the part that people didn’t know. The part of our, and especially my, story that was a struggle. I had spent years and years as a mess and was the least-likely person to ever be part of a beautiful love story. I felt that it was important to share that – to share the shadows and dark parts of my life – so the reader could have real perspective on what the love story is and means to me.

Who are your influences? Both musical and literary?

On the book side, I am a big fan of Rick Bragg, and Bob Goff’s memoirs. Rick’s because he writes like a songwriter, and his honesty and vulnerability was game-changing for me. Bob because of his whimsy and unique perspective of life. Musically, it would be Merle Haggard and Don Williams.

But truthfully, some of my biggest influences are from films… but not on the screenwriter or filmmaker side. It’s the characters who have influenced me the most. Forrest Gump changed me. He changes me still. He is how I’ve had the chance to see child-like innocence and love in a grown-up world. John Keating from DEAD POETS SOCIETY has helped me put life in perspective and “seize the day”. Rudy Ruettiger and Jimmy Chitwood from the sports films RUDY and HOOSIERS have shown me that big impact from small towns can happen.

As strange as it sounds, the characters on the screen end up being as real to me as if they were in my life. I wrote at length about it in my new book. Though they aren’t actually real most of the time, my experience of them is very similar to meeting someone in real life that I get to watch and listen to for a short time… much like a father, or a grandparent or a teacher might be. And when they are gone from the screen, it is as the same as if they’d passed or moved away in real life too. All you have left are the things you saw them do and the words you heard them say. I didn’t have a father or grandfather in my life who shared important things that a boy needs to learn, and so all I have are the characters in songs and stories to teach me. They shape me and how I see life.

What was the inspiration for Once Upon a Farm?

When I finished my first book, I found myself wanting to share more. It was almost as if once I’d reached the 70,000 words the publisher had asked for, I put my pencil (laptop) down. And yet, there was still so much left to say.

I am a bit of diarist, honestly. Selfishly, these stories that I put down on the page, are mostly for me, and for my children. And for their children some day. Most everything I have ever written or made is rooted in who I am and this life I’m living. The new book was a way to dig deeper into the life I lived with my older girls before we met Joey, the fourteen years I spent with her, and also the life I’m living now with my four-year-old daughter Indiana. And in this book, I also wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned along the way and the ones I’m learning still.

Your life on the farm has formed the basis of many of your songs, and obviously books too. Is this a life you were always drawn towards?

Again, part of it is probably the influence of the romantic stories and lives I’ve seen on film and in, stories that I’ve read. But it’s most-likely me taking a moment from my childhood, when we lived in a farmhouse outside a small town in Kansas, and bringing it back to life. That has been happening for years without me even knowing it’s happening. It’s almost like I woke up one day and realized that I had recreated the life I remembered from fourth-grade, when we lived in a white stick-frame house surrounded corn fields, my parents were still together and there was room to play outside – life was simple. I get the feeling all of us probably do it, without realizing it – spend our lives trying to get back to that ‘one’ favorite moment or life we lived when we were young.

“For me there’s usually a bit of “masterpiece” on every page. Something made me want to write that song, or that line, or that story. And it was something worthwhile.”

Hemingway said “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” Is the ratio also true for music?

Yes, I think that ratio holds true for me too. Only for me there’s usually a bit of “masterpiece” on every page. Something made me want to write that song, or that line, or that story. And it was something worthwhile. But unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to a complete piece of work that is marketable or profound for others, and so you pitch it. Still, it has a bit of magic in it to me, even in the wastebasket. The great songwriting legend Harlan Howard used to tell me that the 99 bad songs to get to 1 good one, were pencil sharpeners. And he’s right. They’re not a waste of time. They’re important. They help hone our craft, and make it so that when the truly great ideas hit our minds, we have the skills to get them on to the page.

How has McKee’s STORY Seminar impacted you personally?

I think in my case, coming to hear Bob’s lecture, just as my wife got the news that there was “no more the doctors could do”, was incredible timing and he helped me (and Joey) put the “conflict” that we were about to face into some perspective that would help us through the next few difficult months, and ultimately help me to see life clearer even now, two and a half years later.

Join us for the first Nashville STORY Seminar!

October 5-7 2018