Kings Of Leon: Return Of The Prodigal Sons

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

But more importantly, at least for our purposes, the roots of the Kings of Leon’s music and performing are inextricably bound up in the church. “Religious and secular music come from the same place,” says Jared, “from the black churches of the 1800s and early 1900s. That’s where the music of our churches came from and where rock and roll comes from.”

“Caleb was always the best singer in church,” says Nathan. “If the choir ever needed a guy to sing a verse he was always the man for the job. Once I realized how good a singer he was, I took over the drums.” Nathan, at the tender age of eight, began backing his parents on gospel staples like “Jesus On The Mainline” and “You’ve Got To Move.”

The boys poured heart and soul into the music of the church, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. “If the first four or five songs before the preacher started preaching were really good,” Jared explains, “we could have something called a ‘blow-out.’ A blow-out is when people start screaming and shouting and getting so into the music that my dad wouldn’t get to preach and we wouldn’t have the alter-call. Instead we would have an hour-long shout-fest with music and get dinner earlier.”

The boys would request songs like “Power Filled With The Spirit” because they knew it would result in a blow-out. “It would be like a half day at school,” Nathan enthuses, “and the church would turn into a juke joint with people breaking out dances and getting down to gospel music. And then we could go get pizza before the Methodists.”

While a Pentecostal church service and a rock show are ostensibly very different events, the two have more in common than might initially meet the eye. For one thing, they are both performance-based. For another, “the show” can radically transform lives in profound ways, inspiring exultant feelings of redemption and salvation (though these days you are more apt to read the testifying on Twitter or Facebook). Speaking in tongues, snake handling, euphoric trances – all things one could easily find at a Kings’ Bonnaroo set. “It’s all tapping into that part of your brain that’s taking you to a different level,” says Jared, “especially when you see people jumping up and down and crying at our shows. You could take a film of a church audience where we come from and take a film of our audiences – minus the Kings of Leon t-shirts – and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.” That’s certainly true for the Kings now, but for a long while it didn’t look like the Kings would or could ever exist.

The Followill family lore has been greatly romanticized, as it probably should be, but in truth it wasn’t always a fundamentalist version of The Brady Bunch. At times, the family slept in their car or on a floor. Jared recalls constantly fighting as the perennial new kid in town. Their father reportedly struggled with firewater, had a run in with the law (allegedly trying to make a citizen’s arrest on a cop) and finally, in 1997, his marriage to Betty Ann collapsed. The boys stayed with their mother in Jackson, Tennessee. Caleb dropped out of high school and worked construction; Nathan began pursuing a sports training degree at Freed-Hardeman University, a Christian school in Henderson, Tennessee; and Jared, who was seven years younger, was just starting junior high.

The entrance ramp to the road of runaway success often begins with some random, inexplicable moment. These mysterious events are impossible to plan or predict and may take years before their significance is fully realized. It can be sheer happenstance or, as Ivan might have deemed it, the hand of an almighty mucky muck. Whatever the reason, it would eventually lead the Followill boys from the tedium of the work-a-day world and sports training degrees to a different kind of promise land: one with multi-platinum albums, Grammys and even matrimony. (Last year, Nathan married the talented singer-songwriter Jessie Baylin, and Caleb recently became engaged to Lily Aldridge, the stunning Victoria’s Secret model.)

That pivotal from-nothing-to-something moment came out of nowhere. “Caleb always knew he wanted to be a performer of some sort,” Nathan says. “He was always a jokester, the class clown. When he was little all he wanted to do was be on Saturday Night Live. He would do Chris Farley imitations or whoever was funny at the time. As he got older, he talked more about becoming a musician. One weekend I came home from college to check on everybody and knowing all this about Caleb I said to him, ‘Let’s go write some songs’ and he was like, ‘Okay.’ There was no need for instruments – we just sang. We started writing these really cheesy songs based around melodies we heard in our heads.”

At the time, Nathan says, they were listening to a lot of country music by the likes of Vern Gosdin, Shenandoah, Diamond Rio, Keith Whitley and Vince Gill. Caleb has described the first song they wrote as a “shitty-ass country song.” No matter the song’s particular merits, the fact is a small throwaway composition became a catalyst. And the brothers fully dedicated themselves to music, spending untold hours writing and performing songs.

Soon after, Betty Ann remarried and relocated with her boys to Nashville. Their new stepdad broke down in tears upon first hearing the boys sing and agreed to help finance their demo. Now living in Music City, the Followills could immerse themselves in the town’s popular pastime: hitting the music publishing or record deal jackpot. Going under the sobriquet The Followill Brothers, Nathan and Caleb were a country-singing a capella duo performing at open mics and the famed Bluebird Café while shopping themselves around town.

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