With a career spanning more than three decades, platinum-selling singer/songwriter and musician, Michael W. Smith is no stranger to the radical highs and lows that come with fame and fortune.
Since the early 1980s the 61-year-old American has won numerous awards including three Grammys, and counts Bono and George W. Bush as some of his closest friends. He performed at the Billy Graham memorial service earlier this year.
However, a number of challenges in his life almost caused him to throw in the towel last year after 35 years in the music business:
“I talked with my team at the beginning of 2017 and told them I’m not going to do another record unless I can write some stuff that really excites me. I was still grieving over my father who died in 2015 after suffering from dementia. The landscape changed in my life and I couldn’t write anything.
“I thought it would be two or three more years before I did any recording at all if I ever did record ever again.”
Fortunately, that writer’s block only lasted two weeks after he felt challenged to respond to the divisions in his country during the time of the US elections:
“It really wasn’t so much about the election. It was how mean and awful people were on both sides. It honestly made me angry. And the Church was at fault as well. That inspired me to start writing again.
“And then I also started writing about the teen suicide rate and drug epidemic in America. Two weeks later I got 26 songs on my computer. Then the floodgates opened up and I had 50 ideas. I literally ended up releasing two records in February that year, A Million Lights came out on 16 February, and then a worship record Surrounded came out just a week later which is completely insane on many levels. But I pulled it off because I felt that was what God wanted me to do.”
Michael’s passion for gospel music began in his church in Kenova in West Virginia where he grew up. He learned to play the piano at a very early age, sang in the church choir and wrote his first song when he was just five. Then as a ten-year-old he had an intense spiritual experience when he decided to become a Christian.
But after graduating from high school and feeling isolated from his friends who went away to college, he started to battle with drug abuse which led to a near-death experience:
“I just thought I could play with the fire and not get burned. It all came to a head in 1979, when I had a meltdown and nearly died from a drug overdose. I knew at that point that if something didn’t change I was going to lose my life. But thanks to the prayers of my parents and the support of so many people, my life was turned around.
“When you’re doing the things I was doing, it’s just a nightmare; you can’t think clearly and you’re hanging out with the wrong people. But from that day forward I said, ‘God, I need another rescue today, I need another rescue tomorrow,’ and all of a sudden, all these positive things started happening. God provided a way out of this mess that I was in and I was nurtured back to health for the next eight months.”
Then Michael met two people in the early 80s who would play a pivotal part in his life:
“In 1981 I met this sweet little 100-pound 5’ 3” woman called Debbie from Nashville; and we just celebrated 37 years of marriage. She is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.“Then, I started writing songs and all of a sudden I’m musical director for well-known Christian recording artist Amy Grant and I’m cutting my first record and I’m her opening act in 1982.”
Not long after this, his own solo career started to take off. His biggest success in mainstream music came in 1991 when “Place in this World” hit number six on the American Billboard Hot 100 and in 2009 he was inducted in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Over the course of his career, he has gone on to sell more than 18 million albums.
Through all this success it was his wife, Debbie, and his church prayer group, who helped Michael as he struggled to deal with the trappings of fame in those early days:
“I was enamoured by all the success and attention I was receiving. I was always concerned by how many shows we’d sold out and how many people had bought my albums. I was young and growing in my faith. But my wife was always straightening my head. She’d say great and she’d remind me who I was; and that all this was a gift. This is the goodness of God. Now when it comes to the awards, I couldn’t care less if I get another one.
“We’ve had a prayer group together for almost 30 years. I remember if I got a number one song on the pop chart I’d get puffed up and they’d say ‘It’s not about you.’ My pastor, Don Pinto who’s now 88 has really been my mentor all these years. He has always been really good at deflating my head when it got bigger than it should have.”
Now Michael and his wife have five children and 11 grandchildren and he says whenever he’s away touring he can’t wait to return to their family farm home near Nashville:
“When we had all these kids my greatest joy in life was not being a celebrity, my greatest joy was being a dad and being a husband. So that really . . . would point me in the right direction. After all the attention and the fame and whatever, I just wanted to go home and be dad and be with Deb. So, the whole family thing has just been a life-giver for me.
“When I’m touring, I give it 120 per cent but then I come home and I can’t wait to be with my family, but I’m exhausted. So it takes a few days to weave back into what reality is. I remember Bono telling me one time when he would do big tours his wife, Ali would make him go to a hotel for two weeks to wind down before coming home. I think that’s true I think I did hear that. But family’s always been the most important thing in my life.”
Michael explains how he’s managed to continue writing and recording so many profound songs for more than three decades:
“I write out of what I feel and what I experience. Sometimes I have a hard time finding the words to express what I feel, so the best way for me to process this is for me to write songs. “In 1999 I went to Littleton, Colorado to sing ‘Friends’ at the Columbine Memorial Service and it was a day that impacted me greatly. It was so overwhelming emotionally that I just had to find a way to cope with it and digest it all, so I found myself at the keyboard writing music. Meeting Cassie Bernall’s family inspired me. Cassie claimed she believed in God and lost her life for it. Inspired by . . . her story I wrote a song called ‘This is Your Time’ which is a challenge for us all to recognise through Cassie’s life, that now is out time to stand up and live life unabashedly for God.
“I try to stay current and to stay ahead of the curve. I surround myself with young people in the studio which helps me to be relevant to what’s going on today. Even though I’m old enough to be their dad.
“The challenge is to be yourself and not try to be Bono or Chris Martin or anybody – there’s already one of those. I’ve not always succeeded on every level. I push myself, I like adventure, I like to take risks and even if I fail, the journey has been awesome. I’m not one to play it safe.”
So what advice would Michael give to other men dealing with issues of pride that he experienced?
“Especially for guys we think we can do it on our own, we think we can solve every problem. We always want to win, we always want to be successful and be on top. And you know what when you look at what the Bible says “he opposes the proud [but] gives grace to the humble” [James 4:6, ESV].
“I think there’s a way that you can be clothed in humility and be a servant and absolutely just serve people for the rest of your life and be strong. Strong in character and strong in being a friend or being involved in your church. I think there’s a way to do that I know there is. At the end of the day, you have to surrender and God has a destiny, a future and a hope; and that future and that hope is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I challenge you to surrender to that because if you do, your best days are ahead.”
Michael concluded by sharing one of the highlights of his career when someone told him how one of his songs literally helped to save their life:
“This lady came up to me and she said I was driving down the freeway and . . . had every intention of taking [her] own life; desperate, she was 19. She said [she was] driving down the freeway, [had] a pop radio station on and [my] song ‘Place in this World’ [came] on and she pulled over to the side of the road and just began to weep. And she gave her heart to the Lord, had an encounter with Jesus. Everything changed . . . And I just think it’s remarkable that a three-and-a-half-minute song can completely change someone’s life. That’s the power of music. So that’s the story I really remember.”