Listen: Sam and Duncan chat with Luke Smallbone from For King & Country
When Dolly Parton, queen of country music, decided she wanted to start recording more uplifting, spiritual and gospel music, it seems God smiled.
It was only days later that Joel Smallbone – one half of the Aussie-born Christian pop duo For King and Country – phoned her office, cap in hand, asking if the songstress might be willing to collaborate on a track.
That day, a heavenly connection was made, and what resulted was a powerful, moving rendition of the song, God Only Knows, crafted to bring people hope in their darkest moments.
On Sunday night, the song won For King and Country the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance / Song, alongside their Best Contemporary Christian Music Album award, for Burn the Ships.
After the glamorous awards event, Luke Smallbone chatted to Hope Breakfast’s Sam and Duncan, saying it was a “wild set of circumstances” that led to them recording with Dolly Parton.
“From the onset [of recording God Only Knows], we thought it’d be really great to have a female vocal on the song,” he explained, “and we just could never find anybody. So the album came out [with only our voices on it].
“When it came time [to record] the single, we thought, ‘here’s our moment’.”
A History-Making Phonecall to Dolly Parton’s Office
It was a connection with some of Dolly’s staff that gave Joel the impetus to call the country music legend’s team.
“Joel actually taught two of [Dolly’s] junior managers in Sunday School,” Luke explained, “and he had watched the movie Dumplin’ with Jennifer Aniston, that’s got Dolly’s music all laden through it. Joel watches the movie and thinks, ‘well maybe Dolly could be that female to sing the song’.”
Drawing on his Sunday-School teacher influence, Joel called his old students to see if they could put in a good word. It worked.
A few weeks later they were in the studio together with the diva herself, an experience Luke describes as “a thrill” – and the rest is now history.
A Ballad About Life’s Heartbreaks, and God’s Love
The Smallbones wrote God Only Knows after journeying with people through loneliness and loss, and hearing one too many tragic stories of suicide.
“We were compelled to write and portray an honest, yet hopeful, song for us all during difficult seasons,” the pair said.
In an interview, Joel said the song is a reminder that everyone has a story of pain, and none of us truly know the burdens others carry.
“Our histories, our family heritages, the struggles in life, the things that have been done to us that no one knows about, the shame that we carry… [when somebody upsets you], you’re just seeing a brief moment in time of that person.
“What if we pulled the lens back? Even if we did, there are some things that God does only know. God knows your heart – and in turn, the flip of that is, God also carries this love that is sort of the Superman of all love… It’s just this wonderful superhuman love that if we really lean into it, it’d be a beautiful thing.”
Why Dolly Portrayed a Prostitute on Music Video
In an interview for The Tennessean and CNN, Dolly said when she first heard the song, “it was like God spoke”, and that it reached her “at a time when I needed to be lifted up”.
“I feel really blessed for ‘God Only Knows’ to have landed in my lap like it did,” she said. “It’s like it fell from the sky. When I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is so good.’
“I thought, so many people with all their problems … I just felt like this song touched everything people struggle with. There’s just such a peace and love and sweetness about it, and I really think this song says what we need to be hearing right now.
“When we got to singing it, oh it just sounded so good. And just working with them was such a blessing.”
Dolly’s voice adds a profound sense of weight, life experience, and compassion to the song, and Joel says that when he heard it for the first time, it was something of an “out-of-body” experience.
“It’s that rare moment when you’re like, ‘That’s always how it was meant to be.’ It’s pretty remarkable.
“When she says, ‘God only knows,’ you feel it. You believe her. It was always written for this modern epidemic of loneliness and depression. Dolly is the vehicle to get into some of those hearts.”
“She started performing when she was 10, and I think about all she has experienced as a woman in the entertainment world and the social changes. When she says, ‘God only knows,’ you feel it. You believe her. It was always written for this modern epidemic of loneliness and depression. Dolly is the vehicle to get into some of those hearts.”
After recording the remix, Dolly teamed up with Luke and Joel to film a new video, in which they each play different characters: a drug addict, a man suffering illness, and – for Dolly – a prostitute. The video has had close to 7 million views on Youtube.
Explaining why she chose the prostitute character for herself, Dolly explained, “I just wanted to show how far people could go down… and I knew that was something I could do.
“This whole thing was [Luke and Joel’s] project, and God just handed it to me to be part of it.”
Talking to Hope 103.2, Luke said that being attached to the name of Dolly Parton has opened the floodgates to media attention, with practically every Nashville media outlet wanting to speak to them at a recent Grammy nominees’ event.
At a press conference Dolly said she’s made a decision to do music that shines light into dark places.
“This world is just so dark and ugly and awful,” she said. “I can’t believe how we just can’t have a little more light and a little more love. So I’m gonna try and make it my business to do more songs that are more uplifting. Not just all Christian-based songs, but songs that are just about better things, and have a little more light.”
She told CBN News, “I pray every day. I pray about everything. I ask God to lead me and guide me in all the decisions I make – and to bring all the good and right people into my life and to let me do something to glorify God and uplift mankind.”