Michael W. Smith
With 15 million albums sold, 45 Dove Awards, three Grammys, and a lifetime achievement award you might think that Michael W. Smith has achieved it all, but the talented musician still thinks his best days are yet to come. For such a decorated singer, where getting signed and acquiring a label has never been easy, he continues to persevere and raise the standard for Christian music. Smith recently released Hymns II a mixture of the classic hymns he grew up on and some worship songs that have inspired his life. Risen sat down with Smith to learn more about his journey including deception that led to an overdose and the incredible near-death experience that made him return to his faith.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: As a child you loved music at an early age. How did you get your start and what did those around you do to inspire it?
Michael W. Smith: I wrote my first song when I was five years old. It was probably terrible, but I was in love with music. I loved The Beatles and gospel music. I was an athlete growing up and wanted to be a professional baseball player. It all changed when I was fifteen and I realized this [music] was what I wanted to do with rest of my life. I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I didn’t know the rules. But I knew after the second time I walked down the aisle at my church. I walked down the first time when I was ten and had a massive encounter with Christ, changed my life and then I walked down when I was fifteen and told my pastor, “I think music is supposed to be a part of the fabric of my life and I want to dedicate it today. Will you pray for me?”
RM: You attended church growing up and even sang in the choir, but after graduating high school you gravitated towards alcohol and drugs. What lead to the shift away from faith?
MWS: I got deceived. That’s just the bottom line. I made bad choices. I was stupid. I thought I could play with fire and not get burned. Being young and immature, it almost cost me my life. Thank God for a praying mom and dad that never gave up on me. I’m convinced that it was their prayers that saved me. I had an unbelievable encounter one night in 1979. That thing [making bad choices] went on from 1975 to 1979. It was a massive rescue on the linoleum floor in my apartment in Nashville in November 1979. I haven’t been the same since.
RM: What eventually was the reason you came back to Christ in addition to your praying parents?
MWS: I almost died from an overdose. When that happened, I knew that if something didn’t change I was going to die. I knew that wasn’t my destiny. I began to pray as well. I felt like I was in a 20-foot tent and there was no ladder to get out. I just couldn’t get out. I said [to God], “Do whatever you have to do to get my attention. Break my legs. Car wreck. Just don’t kill me. Just get my attention. I need a rescue.” That’s when I lost my joy and became depressed. I have never been depressed. I have always been a real people-person and alive. I knew that this depression and this funky thing I was feeling was God taking my joy away. Along with my parents praying, it all led up to that evening in 1979. I felt like I had a nervous breakdown is what happened. I never went to the doctor. But I do know that the God of the universe came and laid on that floor with me as I convulsed, cried, and wept for three hours straight. I was all by myself. It was pretty supernatural.
Thank God for a praying mom and dad that never gave up on me. I’m convinced that it was their prayers that saved me.
RM: Thank you for sharing, especially since mental health is often taboo in the Christian culture. Many people only know the Michael W. Smith that they see on stage or hear through your music, and might be unaware of the journey that brought you here. You had been playing music most of your life, with different bands and venues. How did you decide contemporary Christian music was what you wanted to make?
MWS: I didn’t really know what that was; that really wasn’t my first intent. My first intent was to go get a pop record deal, but sing songs about Jesus and faith. Our first encounters were with record companies in Los Angeles. Long story short, I didn’t get signed. I met Mike Landon and Dan Herald, who met Amy Grant, and I saw what they were doing with Amy and I just fell in love with these guys. I started writing all these songs and they took an interest in me. One day I woke up and thought, whoever I sign with I want those guys to represent me. It was more about signing with a management company. We couldn’t get a deal. We couldn’t even get a deal with a Christian label. So they started a label called Reading Records, which is still around today. It was all meant to be. I still struggle with the labels a bit to be quite honest. What makes a song Christian? And, what makes it not a Christian song? It is what it is, and I’m grateful. It has been a great run. An amazing 33 years and I feel like it’s getting better. I feel like the best days are ahead.
RM: Since then you’ve sold 15 million albums, received a lifetime achievement award, had 32 of your songs go number 1, won 45 Dove Awards and three Grammys, and have been pivotal in establishing the Christian music industry. What encouragement would you give someone about using their talents for the Lord? Or that may be struggling to find their calling or identity?
MWS: Stay at it! Pray, “God, show me what to do with my life.” I think if you ask God, He will tell you. I think sometimes He stays silent, but you just gotta stay at it. “God, I need to know what you want me to do with my life. How am I supposed to help build Your kingdom? My faith is high and I am going to wait on your answer.” I believe that He will give you an answer.
A three and half minute song has the power to change someone’s life. I just think that’s incredible.
RM: You could easily rest on your accomplishments and not make any new material, but you still are making and recording music most certainly, with a return to the classic hymns of the Christian faith in your latest album, Hymns II. What inspired this project?
MWS: We did a hymns project in 2014 that came out with Cracker Barrel. It was the right thing, the right company. It was kind of a one-off. Alan Jackson and several other artists have done this with Cracker Barrel. It seemed like a good fit. The first Hymns album did really well. All those songs saved my faith. They were part of the fabric of my life growing up in that small church in West Virginia. They came back and said, “Hey would you consider doing Hymns II?” I said, “Yes.” And here we are. This one is a little different. On the first album, those were all songs I sang growing up in my church. On this one, half of them I did, and then we decided to put some songs on there that inspired my life – some current worship songs that are really strong. I would call those modern hymns. So it’s more of a combination and the production is a little bit bigger on this one. I’m really happy with it.
RM: Which hymn resonates with you most and why?
MWS: That’s a tough one. I would probably say, “I Need Thee, Every” time I hear it, I get choked up. All my mechanisms inside of me get fired up and remind me I need Him more than ever in my entire life. As I get more mature in the faith, and hopefully wiser, I just realize I need Him every hour. Not just every day, I need Him every hour. That’s what this song says. “I need thee, O I need thee; every hour I need thee. Oh bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee.” That’s the one I could sing every day for the rest of my life.
RM: What do you hope it does for people who listen to the album?
MWS: Ultimately, it’s encouragement. It is something that people can sing to in the car. If you’re having a bad day, put one of the hymns on. Music is incredible. Music is the most powerful thing in the world. It is the most powerful universal language. A three and half minute song has the power to change someone’s life. I just think that’s incredible. I think there are a lot of songs on there that are going to be the right song for the right person at the right time. That’s what you hope and pray for.
RM: Music has gone through so many transformations and I can only imagine the changes you’ve seen over the years in both mainstream, and in the faith realm. What is it about the classics that have staying power?
MWS: I think it’s the lyrics. In a lot of worship songs, and I don’t want to be critical there are a lot of good worship songs, but we also have a lot of mediocre ones, we’re just moving words around. Then you take a song like, “It Is Well with My Soul,” and that is deep stuff. I just think we need to raise the bar and write songs and lyrics like that. The classics are great and that’s why they are still around. I really believe that.
RM: One of those classics is your song, “Friends are Friends Forever.” What advice do you have for our readers to be faithful friends?
MWS: Realize that it is not about you. It is about being a life-giver. I think you can only truly be a good friend when you really know who you are. You just know that you love Jesus and that’s enough. It doesn’t matter if anyone else loves you or not. He loves you and if you’re secure in that, you can wake up every day and be confident in that, because you know who you are, then I think you can be the best friend ever. When you’re secure [in who you are] you just want to give your life away.
RM: Encouraging young people is something that you are passionate about. In addition to partnering with Compassion International for more than 25 years, you have also founded, and actively support, Rocketown, which provides opportunities and mentors teens in their musical and artistic abilities. Why are these causes important to you?
MWS: I love kids. I think it’s because of what I went through as a teenager, falling off the cliff [so to speak]. If I weren’t a musician, I would probably be a youth pastor. I enjoy working with kids. The whole Rocketown thing was a God idea. God showed me on the street in Franklin, Tennessee, back in 1991. Then with Compassion International, to see a kid get sponsored and their lives changed from what they have in third world countries is amazing. It all seemed to be the right fit for me to be a spokesperson and a sponsor. I don’t have any regrets whatsoever.
RM: Before we let you go, it’s important to draw attention the power of praying parents. Now being married and having raised five children, what is your biggest prayer for your children?
MWS: Our prayer is that they would draw close to the Lord and that they wouldn’t wander from the faith. They would find it for themselves. We can’t save them. [Our prayer is] that they would love God, and they all do. All five of them love God. It is just a blessing. There is nothing better and we are extremely grateful.