Our bus driver Russell is special.
When our career took off in 2008 and we first started having to travel all across the country and visit radio stations and play shows... Joey didn’t like flying. She wanted to be able to take a bus—to make it feel more like being at home, even though we would be gone from our farm.
So through a friend, I met Russell Brisby and he and I found ourselves sitting at our kitchen table talking about the finances of leasing a bus and a driver for our travel. He sat down with me and showed me the costs and figures. It was clear to see we were in no position to afford him or one of his beautiful buses anytime in the near future.
I was disappointed and I knew Joey would be also.
As Russell stood up from the table to shake my hand and say goodbye, I looked him in the eyes and said, “the truth is... we aren’t looking to hire a bus and a driver, we’re looking for someone to be part of our family. Someone who could help me make sure my wife is okay through all of this.”
And a big smile came across Russell’s face as his eyes softened and he said two words…
He has been with us ever since.
Together we spent that spring fixing up an old 1955 tour bus (Joey hand-made the curtains and painted the cabinets) and we toured all over the country in it, just the three of us. And every time that old bus broke down on the side of the highway, (which was a lot)… he would just look back with that big smile and say, “you two stay in here... I’ll have us going again in no time.”
And he would. He is the MacGyver of tour buses. We nicknamed him Russdriver.
He would do anything for us.
A year or two later when our record label said we needed ‘fan votes’ to try to win ACM Vocal Duo Of The Year... our Russdriver went above and beyond the call of duty to help.
Not just once, but twice...
The trophy for that Academy of Country Music award now sits on our mantle at home... but the real award should go to Russell. He has been beside us every step of the way of this beautiful music career we’ve got to experience over the last eight years... and is still with us now, doing what he does—making sure that Miss. Joey and I have everything we need to live and love and do things our way.
When Joey told him that what he’d been eating wasn’t good for him and she was worried about him... he followed her lead and dropped a hundred pounds of the weight that he’d carried since he was young.
He’ll be the first to tell you, she changed his life.
And a couple of years ago when we decided that we were gonna stay home and make a TV show in our barn and do concerts there, Russell hung up his bus keys and put the key to our barn on his key ring. He would get there early and repaint yellow lines on the gravel for cars to know where to park and he would hold cameras so people could take pictures with us, and he would walk onto the stage at 7 p.m. and introduce us to the sold-out crowd...
“Ladies and gentleman…from clear across the driveway… Joey and Rory!!”
And all this summer when we needed to get my frail wife back home from Atlanta or Chicago after cancer surgery or treatment... he’s used our bus, his bus, or borrowed other people’s buses to make it happen.
In October, when we stopped treatment and Joey was ready to come up here to Indiana to be with her family and could no longer ride in our Tahoe... Russell got her and Indy situated comfortably on a bus in our drive-way and carefully avoided every pothole from Nashville to Indianapolis, because he loves her. He loves us.
So much so, that when a few days ago Joey told me she wanted to get her 80 year-old-friend Miss. Joan up here so she could tell her goodbye. Once again, our friend Russell stepped up to make it happen.
Over the last few years, Miss. Joan who lives just down the road from us, has been teaching Joey how to quilt. It’s the sweetest thing to see them together. Miss. Joan’s husband passed away years ago, and she never learned how to drive.
So at 5 a.m. on Thursday... Miss. Joan, and almost a dozen neighbors and close-friends of Joeys boarded Russell’s bus in the parking lot at our farmhouse. They were all coming to tell her goodbye.
Joey was tired and slept a lot that day, but she was also excited. She knew she couldn’t see all of her friends, but she could at least see a few and tell them how much she loves them and listen to them share their feelings with her.
There was cowboy Jack Lawrence who taught Joey how to rope... and his wife Sandy, who worked at the horse-vet clinic with Joey and wrote the song “When I’m Gone"... and Danny Smith, the very first customer at Marcy Jo’s, who saw that Joey and Marcy were sweating to death in the kitchen and showed up a few days later with a window air-conditioner he bought from Lowes... and Miss. Joan’s daughter Jan who would babysit Indy in our farmhouse while we played our barn concerts... and Stephanie Black who rubbed Joey’s feet the day before Indiana was born and ‘made the baby come out’ as her children would say... and our sweet neighbors Gabe & Mandy McCauley, who have a special needs child and first ones who didn’t say “I’m so sorry” and instead told us that we just ‘won the lottery’ when our baby with almond eyes was born... and William Olen and his wife Kathy who are long-time music business friends who just last night helped me make Joey biggest dream come true (that’s another story for another post)... and our farm hand Thomas.
Like Russell, Thomas Travioli has been there for us. And after five years of working at our farm, he’s still here for us. Joey met him at Marcy Jo’s also, when he volunteered to add-on to their kitchen in exchange for "free breakfast for a while." That was the kind of deal my bride loves to do. On just a handshake for a contract... he does everything at the farm we don’t have time to do, or aren’t home to do, and don’t know how to do. So when Joey told me to reach out to him and share one of her last requests with him. Through tears, he got out his saws and hammer and did what she asked.
A rough-cut wooden box with a cross on it was placed beneath the bay of the bus and brought up here because that’s what Joey wants. “Thomas to make my box... simple, from wood at the farm,” she said. “And find a good spot in the family cemetery in the field behind our house, where we put your mama’s ashes last year... with room enough beside my headstone for you to join me someday... in God’s time.”
And so we will.
Whatever she wants... that’s what I want.
The bus arrived at Joey’s mama’s farmhouse about 1 p.m. And I climbed on and told our friends that she was sleeping and I updated them on her health and that she when she wakes up, she might be a little groggy and not always make complete sense right now. It’s the medicine.
And we took a picture before I brought them in... Russell is behind me in the ball-cap and Thomas is beside me in the flannel shirt.
They all stayed for many hours, and Joey’s mama cooked and had pies and dinner for everyone. We all laughed and we cried, and one-by-one I led our friends through a door into the back bedroom to see her and sit with her and talk. Some came out smiling and full of joy and some came out hurting and having a hard time catching their breath.
Miss. Joan was especially moved. Joey had had Russell, earlier that morning, find the quilt that Miss Joan had made her at the farm—the one with the log cabin pattern with lots of red on it—and bring it up in the bus with him. She said that’s what she wants to be wrapped in when it’s her time to go.
Our tears fell with hers.
Before everyone left to head back out to the bus... we helped Joey out into the living room—she wanted to tell everyone one more goodbye. Her friends gathered around her on the couch and she told them of her hope that she might be able to still be here for Christmas, or for Indiana’s 2nd birthday in February.
Joey’s hope never fades. No amount of pain or medicine can touch it.
It runs too deep. It’s connected to her faith in God. And as she will tell you, God can do anything.
Then we all held hands and said a prayer, and put our hands together with Joey’s.
In that moment, I knew, that if there was a way—if Russell’s bus could have been big enough—there would be thousands upon thousands of people on the bus trip up to see her... their hands around hers for the picture. All lifting her up, loving her.
It was getting dark by the time everyone was loaded back up and the bus pulled out, headed back to Tennessee.
By then, Joey was settled in bed, under her covers and I sat beside her and listened as she told me about our friends and about how much she loved seeing them and getting to talk to them. She had had a great day. That was all we could have hoped for.
The morphine was making her eyelids heavy... “It was like a dream,” she said, “a sweet dream.”
And it was. A real live, beautiful sweet dream.