Interview with for King & Country by Dale Reeves
“Every day I find it’s a fine fine life.” —from Fine Fine Life, for King & Country
Joel and Luke Smallbone were born in Sydney, Australia, but at a very young age they relocated with their family to Franklin, Tennessee. Their father, David, was in the Christian music business and was offered a management job in Nashville. After the around-the-world move with his six children in tow and one more on the way, David’s job fell through. David and his wife, Helen, were forced to rely on God more than ever before to meet their needs.
David and Helen taught their children the necessity of being totally honest with one another as a family. They learned together how to kneel in prayer, asking their heavenly Father for daily sustenance. Someone in their church in Franklin anonymously paid the hospital bill for the birth of their daughter Libby. Someone else gave the family a van.
Looking back, Joel said, “My family and I came over here to pursue the ‘American Dream.’ Conventional thinking says you should grow up, go to school, go to college, and get a job. When my dad’s job fell through, he must have felt like a failure as a man, as a provider for the family. We would sit in our living room and pray together for God to provide for our physical needs. All of us realized that our family might roll a bit differently than other families around us. There were those who ridiculed my mum for taking on the huge task of homeschooling seven children while traveling on the road with my older sister Bec’s music career [Rebecca St. James]. I’m sure when my mum decided to do that, she was probably shaking in her boots. It definitely had its challenges, but when I look back on it now, it’s really turned out to be ‘a better story’ for us.”
Luke recalled, “We grew up on the road as our dad managed our sister’s music career. At the age of 13, Joel was the stage manager, which meant that after we arrived at a venue, Joel was charge of directing volunteers and union crews. It was a challenging thing for both him and them. We began each day with prayer, and not all of the union workers were Christians. I’m not sure what they thought about Joel in those days. No doubt they wondered what their day was going to look like. Joel may have been only 13 years old (he probably thought he was 21 at the time!), but what an opportunity to make a difference in their lives through the conversations that took place.”
All seven children in the family may have approached life a bit differently due to their family circumstances, but they all received on-the-job training at a very early age. Their brother Daniel learned his trade of lighting design and programming, Ben taught himself video, and this year Joel acted in the feature film, Priceless: She’s Worth Fighting For, directed by his brother Ben. Their younger brother Josh grew up managing the Compassion International booth; he has learned to be a pretty savvy businessman through his experience with authors and speakers such as Mike Huckabee.
The Smallbone family discovered not a contrived, but a better story.
Collaboration & Excellence
Joel and Luke founded the band for King & Country, released their first full-length album in 2012, won New Artist of the Year at the 2013 GMA Dove Awards, and in 2015 won two Grammy Awards. They have exceeded expectations in performing numerous sold-out shows, have won multiple K-LOVE fan awards, and have appeared on TV shows such as Today, Fox & Friends, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Huckabee, and others.
Joel and Luke’s success stems from their willingness to lay their lives open before God, asking him to develop their talents for his glory. I have had numerous opportunities to travel with them, to come alongside them in their journey. Truly what you see on stage is who they are. There is no prima donna attitude on or off the stage. They live out the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:2-4: “agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (New Living Translation).
Joel said, “Growing up in a large family, we had lots of opportunities for creative interaction and collaboration. We began our creative experimentation early on, soaking up life experiences that would influence our musical future. Our dad taught us to pursue artistry and ministry in the church as uniquely and as excellently as possible. So my passion as a Christ follower would be to tell a better story, one perhaps less told, not something expected or contrived.”
Impacting Others’ Lives
This attitude explains why for King & Country has performed impromptu songs and concerts in an Enterprise Rent-a-Car commercial, at 35,000 feet aboard a Southwest Airline flight, and for those waiting outside in the cold for Winter Jam concerts. It also explains why their songs connect so authentically with people. They sing about real people and real issues, whether that concerns a friend’s fight with depression, romantic breakups, sex trafficking, or their sister Libby’s battle with Lyme disease. Luke explained, “Music has the peculiar ability to connect with the soul, and we want to use it to encourage others. Life is a journey, full of highs and lows, triumphs and sorrows. These are the subjects we write about—real human experiences.”
Jamie George, lead minister at Journey Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and one of Joel’s mentors, challenged him to take their message beyond the walls of the church. Joel stated, “Jesus Christ was a revolutionary who challenged the status quo. My greatest desire is that people would see the historical Jesus exactly as he was and see him for exactly as he is—not some fabrication of those who would lessen the real Jesus, the haters or critics. And that as they see him they would be challenged to really know him, then pursue the giftings and unique desires God has put in them. So whatever we do, either as a musician, an artist, an educator, or an office worker who sits at a desk 9-5, we would do this to the best of our ability in a way that honors God and exercises the creativity he has uniquely put in each one of us.”
Joel continued, “My father-in-law says, ‘God doesn’t draw in straight lines.’ He might lead you from point A to point D to point F, then back to point B. It can take a bit of time for people to identity their passion and unique giftings from God, to do what God has called them to do
. . . and that’s OK! One of my favorite verses from the Bible says, ‘We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps’” (Proverbs 16:9, NLT).
Joel and Luke’s band name, for King & Country, is a mission statement meaning “for God and for people.” It is about taking Jesus’ message to the mainstream and doing it unapologetically. Their calling is not just about their music. They are also endeavoring to live out this theme as young men, to stand for something greater than themselves, to lean on something beyond their own experiences. As Luke said, “We just try to walk faithfully in the opportunities we are given and, honestly, we’re just along for the ride.”
Dale Reeves is the grow pastor at Christ’s Church, Mason, Ohio, and the author of The Smart Dad’s Guide to Daughters. He has written several books while traveling with Joel and Luke Smallbone.