BETWEEN THE LINER NOTES
Michael W. Smith Reflects on 25 Successful Years
By Heidi Krumenauer
CBNmusic Guest Writer
Belting out his songs to an audience of 12,000 in Houston, TX this past June, Michael W. Smith was doing what he does best – entertaining and worshipping – and cutting his 21st career album, A New Hallelujah. His third all-worship album, which was released on Oct. 28, was not the only accomplishment of 2008, however. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of his career in the Christian music industry. For this man who has nearly $15 million in career sales and has received oodles of Dove and Grammy Awards, Michael humbly reflects on the music he has written and the songs he still carries in his heart for his next 25 years in the business.
Seeking to Impact Culture
Interestingly, Michael first attempted to break into the ‘business’ with aspirations of becoming a pop artist. In fact, his first three real meetings in seeking a record deal were with pop labels. “I wanted to be the next Elton John or Billy Joel. I was going to make pop music, but talk about my faith. And I was inspired by people like Larry Norman and some of these people playing rock ‘n roll but talking about their faith, and I thought that was cool…this could reach a whole new generation. So honestly, that was my desire.”
While pop was his desire, it was Christian label Reunion Records that gave Michael his first shot. Michael admits that he was concerned about signing with Reunion in the early 80s because he knew very little about the Christian music business. He was also concerned that a Christian label may limit his opportunity to impact culture. “I thought it would kind of stay in this bubble,” he says.
Quite the contrary – Michael’s music has hit both the Christian and secular charts, impacting generations of believers and non-believers over the years.
Today, Michael looks back on a quarter-century of impact and says that he never really imagined himself where he is today. “I don’t think you can ever predict that,” he says. “I was always very optimistic that I could do this thing, and more importantly I felt like it was what God called me to do.” But while his dream has always been to make music, Michael has often surrendered himself and his career, saying “Lord I’m yours…this is what I want to do, but if you want me to do something else, I’m willing for you to change my desires.”
Still Raising the Bar
Michael acknowledges that it was much easier to break into Christian music 25 years ago with fewer artists competing for space. “It’s extremely difficult now because there’s only so much room out there. Back then, I was at the right place, at the right time. And, it’s not bad to have Amy Grant as your champion and give you an opening slot on her tour!” he says.
Things look different today for Michael and all the other artists who want to claim a piece of prime musical property. “Now it’s like the bar has been raised and you’ve got to have something spectacular and unique to connect with an audience. I feel very fortunate and very grateful.”
As Christian music has evolved, and even with a flood of new artists coming to the table, Michael believes that the industry has gotten better. “We’ve learned how to make better records than we did in the late 80s,” he says. But Michael believes there is always room for improvement. “For me, it’s always been about a year ahead. I always think how the next record can be better than the last. How do you progress, and how do you get better at what you do?”
Michael is not alone in challenging his own talents as he surrounds himself with others who are always looking forward. “I think there are people – like with Amy [Grant] -- we still stay in touch and talk about raising the bar. Especially with my musician friends, I’m like ‘c’mon guys, challenge me! Let’s not just go out and make another record. Let’s make something fresh!’ With my team and the record people and the producers, when we’re in the record environment, we’re like let’s go, let’s not just go for status quo,” he says.
Blending Excellence with Humility
But even with all that creativity on his side, Michael knows that it takes a lot of work to keep his music and image fresh if he wants to remain a voice in this competitive business. “You can’t just sit around and be complacent. You’ve got to get up and get with it. I could easily settle back and not do much but play gigs for the rest of my life and make a living. That’s not what I want to do, though. I’ve got to go for it because I feel like God requires excellence out of me. That’s just something I want to respond to – the love of God. I know who I am. I’m the son of the High King of the universe. And here I have this gift that He gave me and what am I going to do with it? I feel like I want to hit a grand slam; that’s what I want to do.”
But it’s more than just the musical excellence, Michael quickly confesses. “I think there’s that balance of being so good at what you do and striving for excellence and then balancing that with a life of humility. I believe there’s a way you can do that.”
And he has.
With a home full of awards and accolades, Michael says his most cherished treasures are not in the form of gold statues or framed platinum albums. His treasures are his family. “I’ve been married for 27 years and I’ve never been more in love – ever. My kids are doing great. Not that we don’t have struggles like everyone. There are trials and tribulations and things that come along and you go ‘whoa’…but it’s all part of life. But I think if I look at the big picture and look at my family, I go ‘wow God!’”
As for his three Grammy awards and 42 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, Michael chuckles when he talks about them. “Those don’t define me. Actually, most of my Dove awards are in a cabinet. You can’t see 35 or 36 of them. There’s maybe four of them out somewhere in the house. I’m not going to create a shrine around my house.”
Perfecting His Platform
Michael is fully aware that God’s career plans could shift at any time, but he’s open to whatever might lie ahead. “If he took it all away, I’d punt and do something else. I don’t know what that is. Maybe I’d go back and pastor a church like I did for two years or get into youth ministry. Gosh, or move to Africa. I don’t know. I need to be wide open.”
While he’s always wanted to say that he’s been open to the Lord’s plans, Michael confesses that when he was young, he was a bit consumed and immature. “I had to learn a few things along the way, which I think I have. I think I’ve gotten wiser, and I think I’ve matured up a bit. I still have a ways to go. I think I’ll be learning this thing until the day I cross over to the other side. It’s not about the awards, and it’s not about the hits and how many records you sell. It’s just not.”
As Michael considers the years ahead, he looks beyond the music. “I’m extremely excited about The New Hallelujah. I’m so happy about it, but what’s the next thing for me? It’s not just what the next record is, but it’s about the other things I’m involved in. I’m involved in Living Hope, Compassion…and I say ‘Lord, is there anything else I should be doing in my life? Let me take full advantage of my platform to influence people.’”
Humbly, Michael recognizes that his iconic status positively carries a lot of weight with influencing others. “It’s a scary thing, but people want to hear what I have to say, and that’s a lot of responsibility, actually. I need to make sure my words are right, and that I’m articulating appropriately, and I’m inspiring people to go change the world. I think I have the ability to do that. I think we all do at some level. I think we all need to make sure we got it right and that we understand our calling and figure out what’s next.”
Professional Hat Juggler
So what is next for Michael?
Acting? Been there.
Politics? Done that.
Producing? Done that too.
These days, 51-year-old Smitty – as he is known to his fans – is juggling many hats. So does he think he might have a few too many hats in the air? Michael laughs and says, “A little. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gotten in over my head. I’m a little bit overwhelmed, but for the most part, I think I’m OK. I sort of just jump in where I think I need to be, and I don’t think any one thing is any more important. I do believe, though, when you are talking with the president of the United States and you have a chance to maybe have some input that could potentially change some things for our nation…well, I think that’s important. But at the end of the day, whether I’m talking to the President or I’m feeding a homeless guy on the side of the road, it’s all active worship. No person is more important than another.”
Speaking of the President, Michael has served as Vice Chairman of President Bush’s Council on Service and Civic Participation. Serving a two-year term, Michael has joined other leaders who represent the private and non-profit sectors, government, entertainment, education, and athletics.
But with the change in the nation’s leadership, is there a place for Michael in the new administration? “Well, I would hope that there would be, but I’m not going to bully my way into that. I still haven’t met [Barack] Obama, but I think there’ll be an opportunity to do that. If God opens that door, I’ll walk in and establish a friendship.”
Retiring in Florida?
Don’t be so quick to spread that rumor. Michael says that’s not in the plans.
When asked if he has considered the day he’d put away his keyboard for the last time, Michael responded with, “You know what? I don’t think I could do that. I’m not saying I won’t. It might look different. Maybe when I’m 60 or 65, I might not be out running around all over the stage, but I’m always inspired by the Paul McCartneys and Rolling Stones of the world. These guys are still doing it and it just blows my mind!”
Is retirement even a word in Michael’s vocabulary? Not really. “I don’t think I will ever retire. I’m not going to retire and move to Florida and live just outside a golf course. I’m not saying that’s wrong for anybody who wants to do that. I’m just not sure that as believers that we’re supposed to retire. I realize that there are times that your job comes to an end and you get older and you can’t do things like you’re supposed to. But I think there’s always Kingdom work to be done, and you can do that at 50 and at 85 and 90, you know? So yeah, to say that I will hang it up…I think I’ll always be writing songs until the day I die – at least I hope I will. Who knows? Maybe the well will just totally dry up and I might need to go do something else, but I don’t really see that right now.”
With more years of creativity under his belt and a passion to serve the Lord, Michael looks forward to impacting our culture not only through his music but through all of the projects that he touches. But for this man who has become one of the most well-known and respected people in the Christian music industry, he prays that it’s not his music that memorializes his time on this earth. At the end of the day, when all the awards have been stripped from his possession, his final words have been spoken, and his last tune has been sung, Michael wants to be remembered in this way:
“I’ve always said I want to be remembered as a God-fearing man who loved his wife and kids well. That’s what I would hope and pray would be on my tombstone. That’s been the number one priority for me -- my wife, Deb, and my kids.”
A New Hallelujah released on October 28th. This worship album, featuring a 25-voice choir, the African Children’s Choir, and a special guest appearance by 2008 Grammy Award winner, Israel Houghton, was recorded live on June 20, 2008, before 12,000 people. A New Hallelujah DVD will be released on March 17, 2009.
Purchase Michael W. Smith's new album, A New Hallelujah.
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