Michael W. Smith: Music Industry, Billy Graham and Conviction

Music icon Michael W. Smith stars in and executive produces the new documentary, The Jesus Music. The Lionsgate film is now in theatres and takes a look at the Contemporary Christian Music industry and how it became the multi-billion powerhouse that it is today. Three hundred hours of interviews with the biggest artists from Toby Mac, Kirk Franklin, Amy Grant and more… plus the impact Billy Graham had on the movement.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: I had no idea the beginnings that music had. I mean, I’m very familiar with contemporary Christian music, but it was exciting to see kind of this movement. Talk to me about being a part of the documentary and then was there a point in your career where you felt like it was changing?

Michael W. Smith: First I got approached by the Erwin brothers, John and Andy, who’ve got this great movie company. I Can Only Imagine was really their biggest movie, and Lionsgate obviously being a part of that. But they approached me two, three years ago about telling this story that’s really never been told on the big screen. People have written books about it with different genres, but the big picture and how the whole thing began, which was really the late 1960s honestly. Civil unrest, Vietnam, drugs, hippies, the whole deal. It was a crazy time. And all of the sudden all the heroes started dying. Jim Morrison was dead and Janis Joplin and Hendrix and everybody kind of hit rock bottom and these hippies found out about this hippie preacher at Calvary Chapel and people started getting saved. They didn’t want to change what they were doing. A lot of those guys were musicians so they just changed their lyrics and within a span of 6 months there were 12 bands. And one of those records found its way in a record bin in my hometown of Kenova, West Virginia and I found it and it changed my life.

RM: I had no idea the impact of Billy Graham’s blessing so to speak, on the music. And you have a special relationship with him. I mean, you got to share the stage with him and it lasted all the way through performing at his funeral. Talk to me a little bit about Billy Graham.

MWS: Well I love Billy. I miss him terribly. It’s a lot of days I get teared up. What a great man. He had a huge impact on my life. Yeah, for him to put a stamp of approval on what we do, he thought it was valid. I’ll never forget that time. We talk about it in the film, which was a powerful moment in 1994 where he knew that there was no way we were going to reach this next generation of young people unless we changed the programming. So on a Saturday night on a weekend in Cleveland, Ohio he decided to do youth night. We were going to have a rock concert, which was met with a lot of opposition in his camp. But he was determined that was the right move. So it was myself and DC Talk. That night was life changing for me. I heard Billy probably give his best message I’ve ever heard him give.

And that was the beginning of many many youth nights that we did on those Saturday nights all around the country. And that really solidified a real friendship with Billy and I. We had a lot in common. I’ve got five kids, he’s got five kids. We travel. And we just got to be really really close. And then to have those beautiful times together, especially in the last two, three years of his life and me visiting him in his log cabin in Montreat, North Carolina was some sweet times I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

RM: One of the things I think that resonates with a lot of people is this idea of maybe hearing the Lord’s voice or a nudging of something that you think that you should do, but you’re not sure that it aligns with what you want to do. So I have found it fascinating when you were talking about the development of your worship album and the release date of the poignant September 11, 2001. Will you just share a little bit about that story?

MWS: I’d been a worship leader for 19 years before I ever did that record, and I was still doing pop music and all that. But yeah, we had had this worship service at the Ryman Auditorium with a bunch of… It was gospel music week. People come from all around the world for this week. And something happened that night and I kept getting woken up in the middle of the night hearing this voice going “for such a time as this.” And I just sort of resisted. I just didn’t… I’m going, I don’t want to do that. I’m writing these pop songs. But it took the third time, it was a pretty loud voice and I found myself taking all these artists to Lakeland, Florida and I did this record called Worship. It was just slated, the release date was September 11, 2001.

For some reason, the timing of that record, it was a healing record I think for our nation. And it not only found its way all around America, but just literally all around the world. It’s the biggest record of my career. So yeah, that was wild. And then we just redid that record actually, just a few months ago. We just reimagined that record with a full symphony orchestra. So that moment entered the top five for me. And glad I did it. Yeah, and if that record spurred any of the worship movement, if I had anything to do with that, I hold that really lightly. A lot of people say that’s the case, but it doesn’t matter if I did or not. It was the right thing to do and I knew it deep down inside. When I found myself down there doing that record and what happened that night, I’m going oh my gosh, this was the right thing to do.

RM: You’ve had the most amazing career from Grammy’s to dozens of albums, tons of number one songs. We have your children’s book, which I love. Acting. So talk to me about how do you feel that you’re able to blend your creative giftings with your faith. I mean, it’s such a fantastic thing that all of us hopefully could emulate in the marketplace regardless of if our sector happens to be part of a Christian industry.

MWS: You know, I just trust my gut. I just trust my instincts. I’ve got a good team around me. I’ve got a good team at my office. I’ve got a pastor I’ve been walking with for 39 years. My wife and I have this prayer group that we’ve had together for 30 years. So you just kind of walk with this tribe. You have to be careful who you walk life with, you know? And if you surround yourself with not so good people, you’re going to get in trouble. So yeah, and I mentioned in another interview, I surround myself with a bunch of young people too, when it comes to the creative thing. I want to try to… I never want to be one of those people that just is going to retire and find some place that I’m going to play in a theater for the rest of my life. That’s not what I’m called to do. So the whole acting thing and scoring movies, I don’t know how I juggle it honestly, but I think I still pace myself.

I think people think I work all the time and that’s not really the case. I’m a big family guy and I love my family. So that’s the number one priority. But all these things keep coming at me and they all seem to find a place in my schedule. I’m going, I think I’d like to do that. Yeah, I think I’d like to do that. I just got back from Italy doing Andrea Bocelli special, which was great. But this movie though was a real passion of mine because I knew that Jon and Andy Erwin had the goods to pull it off because they’re great storytellers. And to take over 300 hours of interviews and turn that into an hour and 45 minute documentary is difficult and they pulled it off. And it’s really amazing.

Michael W. Smith in The Jesus Music. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lionsgate

REVIEW: Found it fascinating to learn about the roots of Contemporary Christian Music. Thought the bits about Amy Grant seemed surface and left more to be explored. However getting all 3 members of DC Talk to talk about their band breakup on camera is worth watching the entire documentary.

THE JESUS MUSIC hits theatres Friday, October 1


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