One Of My Favorite Albums Turns 20!

March 25 marks the debut album from one of my favorite bands, Smalltown Poets. Here are some thoughts on what that album and band have meant to me over those years.

The cover of Smalltown Poets’ debut album.

If you follow me on Twitter, you can probably tell that I’ve been on a Smalltown Poets kick lately. Partially this is because they’re working on new music and have been posting a lot of behind the scenes photos and videos from the studio. But this band has been one of my favorites for the last twenty years, as my “Top 25 Most Played” iTunes Smart Playlist can attest. Earlier today I was out for a walk and it occurred to me that the 20th anniversary of their self-titled debut album must be coming up soon. And then right after that I saw the following tweet from their Twitter account:

How’s that for interesting timing.

I still remember the first time I heard a Smalltown Poets song. It must have been right around the time that first album dropped and it came during a youth group meeting at my church. Our youth leader played us the music video for the song “Prophet, Priest And King.” It’s really rare to remember your first experience hearing a band, but I remember that one. I was immediately drawn to their sound and the depth of the lyrics in their songs. Not long after I picked up a copy of that debut album from a record store called Vinyl Fever in my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. (Smalltown Poets actually got started in Tifton, Georgia, which is about an hour and a half up HWY 319 from Tallahassee. If you’ve ever traveled South down 1–75 to Florida you’ve probably stopped at the Chick-fil-A in Tifton.)

Right around that time my brother and I were doing the whole high school garage band thing. We didn’t have a lot of talent, but we had loads of enthusiasm. One of the songs we covered was “If You’ll Let Me Love You,” the second track from that debut Smalltown Poets album.

I first had the opportunity to see them in concert on October 4, 2000. I remember the date for two reasons: I grabbed the concert poster from the bulletin board at the student center of my college and also because it was my grandmother’s birthday. They were playing at the Rome, Georgia Forum with The Waiting and Jeni Varnadeau.

Smalltown Poets in Rome, GA on October 4, 2000

After the show my roommate and I met the band and got our picture with them. I chatted briefly with Michael Johnston, the lead singer and told him about my high school band covering “If You’ll Let Me Love You”. I told him we never quite got it right and he very kindly said something like, “That’s ok, we never quite get it right either.” I had the band sign my concert poster and also the setlist I swiped off of the stage from Dana Weaver, who was playing lead guitar for them at the time. Interestingly enough I wound up working with Dana years later and shared that story with him. Sadly I dropped my camera on the ground as I was leaving the concert venue that night. It must have dislodged the film in the camera and when I took the next photo days later, it double-exposed the same negative leading to this weird shot of my roommate and I with the band where it looks like we’re standing on the dashboard of my car:

That’s me in the bright orange Veggie Tales shirt.

It’s kind of a neat photographic anomaly, but I’ve always regretted not having a better photo of myself with the band.

I saw them perform again a year or two later at AtlantaFest at Six Flags over Georgia. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to see them since.

Smalltown Poets has always been a deeply impactful band to me. In addition to just loving their sound, they’ve been an inspiration to me in my walk with Christ. I first encountered them at a time in my life when I was just learning to play guitar and it was helpful to learn from them and many other bands from that era that you can combine you passion for music with your love for the Lord. In college, a time when I was facing all sorts of challenges and decisions I remember listening to “Hold It Up To The Light” from their second album over and over again. Take a listen to it and you’ll understand why.

Getting back to that debut album, I still enjoy listening to it all these years later. “Prophet, Priest And King” is still a fantastic song. My vocal range is nowhere as broad as Michael Johnston’s, so I only try to scream out the lyrics to “Anymore” when I’m by myself in the car. 😊 I used to run sound for the chapel at my alma mater, Berry College, and I can distinctly remember playing “Monkey’s Paw” as loud as I could over the chapel’s sound system one night all those years ago while reseting the building after an event.

I’m super excited that Smalltown Poets is releasing new music soon, and I can’t wait to hear it! I’m grateful to them for twenty years of great, inspirational music. If you’ve never listened to this great band, give them a listen!