The popular Christian duo's version of "Little Drummer Boy" cracks the code of the song Christmas music fans love to hate. "When something's boring," says Joel Smallbone, "it's actually an open opportunity to do something exciting"

By Nancy Kruh
November 30, 2020 04:05 PM
Luke and Joel Smallbone of For King & Country
| Credit: Robby Klein

How'd they do it? How did brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone, aka For King & Country, turn perhaps the most reviled Christmas song into something completely irresistible?

We're speaking, of course, of "Little Drummer Boy," the often-recorded song that has long created a great dividing line between love and hate among holiday-music fans.

Not so with the Christian pop duo's version, a bracing blizzard of sound that's certain to stir even the scroogiest "Drummer Boy" hater.

"It's very basic," Joel Smallbone, 36, tells PEOPLE, explaining how he and his brother cracked the "Little Drummer Boy" code. "This is a song about a boy who's playing a drum for Jesus. And here we are, seven guys [in the band] playing a load of drums. Why didn't Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra ever think of this? We just feel like these slightly dumb, very obvious Australian fellows who did something that, for whatever reason, no one ever thought of."

Adds Luke Smallbone, 34: "It was just the lowest hanging fruit of all time, that nobody had put drums on the 'Little Drummer Boy.' And we were just there at the right height." 

Indeed, typical interpretations tend toward the solemn side that, to many ears, brings out the tedium of the melody and "pa-rum-pum-pum-pums." But with a driving beat, soaring vocals, and most of all, a pounding array of percussive instruments, the Smallbones' version verges on the ecstatic.

Last year, it was the breakout performance on the CMA Country Christmas special — going on to become a YouTube sensation (with 3.4 million views). The Aussie natives, who are based in Nashville, are now riding the wave with their newly released A Drummer Boy Christmas album and ongoing "A Drummer Boy Drive-In" Christmas tour, and they're set to perform the song on Christmas day on ABC's Good Morning America.

But the brothers don't limit the song to the holidays. It's also become a mainstay of their setlist whenever they tour.

"We are so identified as the band that plays 'Little Drummer Boy,'" says Luke Smallbone, "if we don't play it, people are going to stone us!"

The story of how the song became among their signature hits dates back eight years ago, when they were starting out. They'd just issued their debut album, and their manager father decided they needed to do a Christmas tour.

"And we were like, we don't have a Christmas album, we don't have a Christmas EP, we don't have a Christmas song," Luke Smallbone recalls. So the brothers and their band holed up in an old Nashville-area factory for two long days, "and we just started coming up with these renditions of different songs. Quite honestly, we weren't overthinking it. As soon as we got a version that worked, we were like, that's what we're doing! Next song!"

Among those was "Little Drummer Boy," and Luke Smallbone reveals that, "for the most part, the song we played in the factory is the song that is today."

For King & Country
| Credit: Robby Klein

Neither brother has special memories growing up with the song (which was written in 1941), and both say they gravitated to it simply because they're a percussive-forward band and — just to beat a dead horse — it's a song about a drummer. The actual significance of the lyrics didn't even hit Luke Smallbone until they recorded the song for the first time in 2013.

"I can't ever remember lyrics, so I'm in the studio, and I have my phone or my computer, and I'm literally just reading the lyrics as I'm singing," he remembers, "and I get to the end of the song, and I said, 'Guys! This song is about a little boy who doesn't have anything, but he has the ability to play the drum, and he decides that he's going to bring it before Jesus.' My mind was just blown!"

Joel Smallbone recalls the moment, as well: "We were all, like, duh!"

Since then, the song and its meaning has become so embedded in the group's DNA that Luke Smallbone, who's played the drums since childhood, now thinks of himself as a "Big Little Drummer Boy."

"I've got this gift," he says. "I can play the drums a little bit, and I play them with passion, and I play them with the love I had when I was a little boy. That's where it all started, just falling in love with creating beats."

And now, coming full circle, Luke Smallbone has his own "little drummer boy," 5-year-old Phoenix, the second of his three sons. For some time, the boy has naturally gravitated to the drums his dad keeps at their home. Recently, when the Smallbones were conceptualizing their new "Little Drummer Boy" music video, Luke asked his son if he wanted to appear in it — though that invitation didn't mean the part was his. Phoenix still had a rigorous training, practicing daily, learning how to play along with music, and learning how to walk and play with the big drum on his hip.

In the end, Joel Smallbone and brother Ben Smallbone, who directed the video, made the final casting decision based on audition tapes. ("I'm his father," Luke says, "so I'm a little biased.") Phoenix can now be seen marching across Wyoming vistas, playing his drum as he's followed by his dad and uncle in the majestically filmed video.

The video, of course, is just one more way the Smallbones have been rehabilitating the song for its detractors.

"Obviously this song has to be somewhat loved or it wouldn't have lasted 80 years amongst some of the greatest music of all time," Joel Smallbone says. "When something's boring, it's actually an open opportunity to do something exciting."

Which raises the question: Are there any other much-loathed Christmas songs that could be redeemed by the Smallbone magic?

The brothers bring up a recent experience with a frequent companion of "Little Drummer Boy" on hate lists: Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime." Only vaguely familiar with the tune, Joel Smallbone decided it should be the one to warm up crowds on their current tour just before they were to take the stage.

"It's Paul McCartney, it has to be awesome," Joel says he reasoned.

But on the first night of the tour, as Joel stood stage-side and listened to the liltingly repetitive melody, "I turned to Luke and said, 'We can't do this again.'"

So it was a buzzkill?

"Oh, completely," says Joel. "Yeah. Sorry, Sir Paul."

But what would it sound like with ... drums?

Joel Smallbone's wheels begin to turn. He sings a snippet of the refrain.

"You could do it, you could do it," he finally decides, teasing, "That'll be our next cover, a theatrical version of 'Wonderful Christmastime'!"

None too soon, Smallbones. None too soon.