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For King & Country’s reign continues as headliners for Winter Jam

For King & Country won last year’s Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Album for “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.”
For King & Country won last year’s Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Album for “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.” Courtesy of Eric Brown

This year’s Winter Jam tour could be considered a symbol of just how quickly For King & Country has risen through the ranks of the Christian music scene.

Just two albums into their career, the sibling duo of Luke and Joel Smallbone are headlining Winter Jam, Christian music’s leading annual package tour.

Despite that rapid rise, Luke Smallbone does not sound as if he is caught up in his success or the acclaim For King & Country has received. In fact, he is quick to credit the duo’s two previous outings on the tour – in 2012 and 2015 – with playing a part in the upward trajectory of their career.

“We have a lot of thanks to give Winter Jam because Winter Jam was our first-ever tour that Joel and I did back in 2012,” said Luke in a late-December phone interview. “There’s not too many tours where you can get in front of 500,000 people to kind of launch your career … I mean, it was an amazing experience. Because of that, I think Winter Jam will always hold a special place in our hearts.”

Chances are the feeling is mutual with Winter Jam’s organizers. In For King & Country, they have booked a group whose two full-length albums – “Crave” (2012) and “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong” (2014) – each went top 5 on Billboard magazine’s Christian albums chart, while notching three top 5 Christian music singles.

The Smallbone brothers topped off those achievements last year by winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Album for “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.” Luke’s perspective on the Grammy win provides insight into the humility he tries to bring to For King & Country.

“I want to be somebody that tries not to take them (awards) seriously at all, other than it’s people coming alongside of you saying, ‘Hey, we’re proud of what you’re doing. We encourage you. Keep up the good work.’ I think that’s the best aspect of an award,” he said.

“We’re very, very grateful for it,” Luke said of the Grammy. “But it doesn’t alter the reason why we got into music. The reason why we got into music is because we believe there’s hope in music, and we believe music can alter somebody’s day and can alter somebody’s life.”

Natives of Australia who moved with their family to Nashville in 1991, the Smallbone brothers got a taste of the music business during their high school years by singing backup for their older sister, the well-known Christian music singer and author Rebecca St. James.

After high school, they decided to try forming their own group, independently releasing a debut EP, “A Tale of Two Towns,” in 2008 before being signed by Warner Music Group.

That was followed in 2011 by a self-titled EP, which gave For King & Country a breakthrough when its single, “Busted Heart (Hold On To Me”), reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Christian singles chart.

This paved the way for the “Crave” album, a second top 10 single in “The Proof of Your Love,” and then a setback for Luke Smallbone.

On tour in summer 2013, the 6-foot-4 singer contracted ulcerative colitis and eventually landed in the hospital when the disease grew serious and his weight dropped to 125 pounds. Luke takes a good deal of the blame for his health crisis.

“I got diagnosed Halloween of 2012 with colitis. I didn’t take it that seriously at the time,” he said. “I just kind of thought, ‘hey, I need to just tough it out and I’ll be OK.’ And the reason I got so sick was because I didn’t listen to probably myself, knowing that gee, my body’s freaking out here. I need to kind of calm down a little bit. So I got really, really sick, and the doctors were all like freaking out.”

Luke eventually recovered, and For King & Country’s popularity only accelerated with “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong,” an album filled with epic songs in the vein of Coldplay or U2. Two singles from the album – “Fix My Eyes” and “Shoulders” – went top 5 on Billboard’s Christian Songs chart, paving the way for the current headlining slot on Winter Jam.

The Smallbone brothers, who tour with a five-piece band, will bring a fairly elaborate show, with a good deal of visual production.

“One of the things I always talk about is the shows these days need to be as entertaining as possible,” Luke said.

“The people that you’re playing for have entertainment in their pockets. They have it on their phones. It’s around everywhere. So if you’re going to leave them with a message, if you’re going to leave them with something, you’ve got to get their attention. So our hope is all the different things that we have going on will draw attention to the purpose and the mission behind what we’re doing and the messages we’re going to share.”

Winter Jam

What: Christian music concert featuring For King & Country, Matthew West, Crowder, RED, Sidewalk Prophets, NewSong, Tedashii, Lauren Daigle and evangelist Tony Nolan

When: 6:45 p.m. Friday

Where: Intrust Bank Arena, 500 E. Waterman

Admission: $10 at the door

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