June 24, 2020
This may be the first summer in Indiana’s history when people who want to hear live music must go on a quest to find some.
While it is true that most national acts have postponed their tours for many months, the folks who run the 13-24 Drive-In in Wabash have committed themselves to signing up as many bands that are still on the road as possible.
From Sydney to Nashville
First up are For King & Country, an Aussie contemporary Christian duo that is scheduled for two shows at the drive-in on July 4th.
For King & Country are comprised of Joel and Luke Smallbone.
They were born in Sydney, but their father, a music promoter, moved them and four siblings to Nashville when Joel and Luke were still young.
In a phone interview, Luke Smallbone said there was some culture shock to navigate at first.
For example, the Southern practice of inviting someone over to your house when you don’t really mean it. Southerners know such invites proceed from politeness and are not binding verbal contracts.
“I remember my parents answering, ‘OK. When do you want us to come over?’” Smallbone recalled. “And these Southerners would sort of balk. We come from a culture in Australia where you mean what you say and take everything exactly for what it is.”
His parents also warned him that the United States was an especially dangerous place. Smallbone was relieved to discover they were wrong.
“It was kind of a little thing to realize, ‘Hey, it’s actually pretty good here,’” Smallbone said.
When Smallbone’s older sister, Rebecca Jean Smallbone (a.k.a. Rebecca St. James), started pursuing a music career, Joel and Luke provided backing vocals for her during shows.
Eventually the brothers decided to form a duo of their own, initially called Joel & Luke.
Some brotherly groups, like the Everlys or the Bee Gees, have a natural chemistry.
Joel & Luke were not one of those.
Luke Smallbone said it took the brothers six years to figure out how to collaborate to good effect.
“Growing up, we had very different interests,” he said. “We weren’t close. Music is what brought is together.”
Nowadays, the brothers are perfectly complementary, Smallbone said. Joel is intense. Luke is calmer. Luke is good at starting songs. Joel is good at finishing them. Whatever notes Joel can’t sing, Luke can.
“I often joke that Joel and I make one decent talent together,” he said.
Joel & Luke wrote and performed pop music at first. But they realized they’d have more freedom if they wrote music that evoked their strong Christian faith.
“That sort of bucks the conventional wisdom,” Smallbone said. “I think some people assume that Christian music is more creatively limiting. But in Christian music, you can basically write about anything you want. With secular music, you have to write a love song and it better be a darned good one or no one is going to hear you.”
The brothers eventually decided to change their band name to For King & Country, a British rallying cry.
The name has become a mission statement over the years, Smallbone said.
“The reason why we do music is we do music for King and country,” he said. “Meaning, for God and people.”
Smallbone sees the band’s success as a divine seal of approval.
“I think the reason why I am able to keep doing this is that God wants me to keep doing this,” he said. “He wants that type of narrative out there.”
Fans of contemporary Christian artists hold these artists to higher standards of behavior and rhetoric than secular artists. This is the opposite of a burden, Smallbone said.
“If I am being held to a standard of loving my wife well and trying be a good father, that’s hardly a bad thing,” he said.
Collaborating with Dolly Parton
One thing that can be a burden is when fans assume the brothers are experts on the topics they sing about.
“We had a song called, ‘God Only Knows’ about mental health,” Smallbone said. “It was based on having walked through some of that stuff with my wife. But I’m not a psychologist. I’m not an expert. I’m a sinner. I’ve made mistakes in life.”
Speaking of “God Only Knows,” the song was so powerful that it caught the ear of Dolly Parton.
Even though the song was finished and released at that point, the brothers went back into the studio and recorded a new version with the country legend.
Most listeners would agree that Parton adds something extraordinary to a song that was already special on its own.
“When you have someone who has been in the music business and in the world for as long as Dolly has and she sings ‘God only knows what you’ve been through,’ there’s just something about that,” Smallbone said. “You go, ‘We know, Dolly!’
“She brings a richness and authenticity to singing those lyrics that Joel and I could never deliver,” he said.
Asked what the band’s goals are at this point, Smallbone spoke of some initial goals, like winning a Grammy and performing on a late-night talk show.
“Both those things have transpired and we’re grateful,” he said. “All of a sudden, it changes from what the world perceives as important to someone coming up to you and saying, ‘Your song is bringing me hope’ or ‘Your song is bringing me comfort.’
‘You don’t sign up for music for an accolade,” Smallbone said. “You sign up for music because you believe in the power of music.”
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