Michael W. Smith on the Power of Song, the Pain of Loss — and the Love of God
In an exclusive interview, LifeZette talked to the iconic Christian entertainer about his latest tour, records, book projects, and more
The iconic Christian entertainer Michael W. Smith recently embarked on his “Surrounded By A Million Lights World Tour,” and LifeZette was lucky enough to catch up with him by phone to find out, well — what makes this incredibly gifted and inspired person tick.
From the recent loss of his dear friend Billy Graham to his feelings about the Christian’s role in today’s fiercely divided America, Smith held nothing back.
He spent the recent Easter holiday at home in Franklin, Tennessee, where his five children, their spouses, and his 14 grandkids celebrated as a family. Franklin is a suburb of Nashville, a city with a particularly well-suited nickname for the 60-year-old Christian pop legend: America’s Music City.
That was a rare week off for the incredibly productive entertainer. He described his most recent tour as “the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
About his new records and the accompanying tour. The three-time Grammy-winning artist explained the tour was spurred on by back-to-back albums he released earlier this year. The pop record, “A Million Lights,” was released February 16. The live worship album, “Surrounded,” followed on its heels, on February 23.
Both records already have proven to be smashing successes. “A Million Lights” boasted the top position during its debut week on iTunes and Amazon’s Christian music charts. And “Surrounded” was Amazon’s number-one “Hot New Release” just a week after that.
"Much of the pop record was inspired by how divided we are as a country," Smith said of the inspiration for "A Million Lights." "All that was sort of spurred on by the [2016 presidential] election, and how awful people were to each other."
Interestingly, the worship album, "Surrounded," wasn't planned in advance. "I just felt like I was supposed to do something with every tribe and every nation and lots of color," Smith said. "And so I released these two records back to back."
"It's a concert, but it's more of an experience than anything. You just feel like the roof's gonna come off every night. And it's pretty exciting. We've got a great team on stage. We've done 11 shows. We are all just unified — and pinching ourselves that we get to be a part of such a special night."
About the ironic role a "me-focused" climate played in the creative inspiration for the records. "We live in such a 'me' society," said Smith. "The beauty about being a believer is that it's not about you. You really want to better someone else's life. You're focusing on changing the world."
He added, "I always feel like the whole thing's all wrapped up in the very first verse of the Bible. In the beginning was God. Well, are you going to be God — or are you going to let Him be God? It all boils down to the first verse of the whole book."
"We live in a society that just wants to be God. It's all focused around them ... The beauty is when you do have redemption, you find out what this thing is really all about. It's just so freeing, and I just want to see that happen on a grand scale, and watch the world change for the better."
About the loss of his close friend Billy Graham. The late Billy Graham, a faith leader to millions of people, was one of the people Smith most admired — a man who invested his life in changing the world for the better. Smith and Graham met in Columbus, Ohio, where they watched 10,000 young people come forward to accept Christ, and they remained friends forever after.
"He just poured his life into me," Smith said. He noted that the two had a great deal in common. Both men have five children, traveled extensively, and shared a passion for Christ and for family.
Graham died a little over a month before Smith spoke with LifeZette.
Self-accompanied on piano, Smith played "Just As I am" as his friend lay in honor at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., moving the nation deeply and bringing people to tears on February 28 of this year.
Smith told LifeZette that his friend's death hit him harder than he anticipated, though those closest to Graham had been expecting it for years, given his advanced age and failing health. Smith said he's still working through the profound loss and trying to process it. "To get the call — it just annihilated me," said Smith.
The singer believes that when Billy Graham died, he passed something of an intangible but spiritually meaningful mantle along to him.
"He had such a huge influence on my life. I feel like he passed something on to me through his passing ... I still think I'm processing it, but I do feel like something transferred. And I've had a lot of people kind of say that to me prophetically, people that I trust. And believe me, I hold it very loosely. I hold it lightly. I'm not Billy Graham. I never will be Billy Graham," he explained.
"I feel like what I do, on some level, is exactly what Billy did in these crusades ... It might not look like what Billy did. He was a preacher. He was a communicator. He was a great communicator."
"But I think music is the most powerful universal language in the world. And a three-and-a-half minute song can completely change somebody's life," said Smith. "Just blows my mind. So that's what we're doing every night ... I do these question and answer sessions with fans, and half of them — they don't want to ask a question. They just start crying."
"They tell me, 'You saved my life.' And I'm just going, 'Wow.' And I guess I'm doing what Billy did."
About creating a new children's book company. "I always dreamed of doing something for a really younger demographic," said Smith in discussing the launch of a new company, Nurturing Steps, that will focus on creating books and music for the younger set. "I've been wanting to do this for a long time."
The first book, "Nighty Night and Good Night," will be released May 8, just in time for Mother's Day. A lullaby record that complements the book will be available as well. Smith co-created the project with Mike Nawrocki, of "Veggie Tales/Larry the Cucumber" fame.
"My grandkids, they just flip out over this lullaby record. That's all they listen to. And I don't think it's because it's their granddaddy. It was a good indication that I do think we have something special. I look forward to when this thing comes out in May just to see how people respond to it."
Smith's family members are contributing to the project, too, including his son and daughter-in-law, and their daughter and her husband. "We had a really great time creating it."
About the success of the "I Can Only Imagine" movie. MercyMe, the band that created the hit song "I Can Only Imagine," toured with Smith years ago when the band and its lead vocalist, Bart Millard, was first finding a footing in the music business.
"I'm excited about 'I Can Only Imagine,'" said Smith. "It just took everybody by surprise. They opened up for me back in the day when they first got started. And there again, it shows you the power of a song — the power of one song."
"I love it. I'm so happy for Bart and the band," he added. "And I think it's probably been very life-changing for many, many people. They did it right. They've got some great talent, and they promoted it well."
Smith said the phenomenal success of a spiritually driven movie among the secular public was "the perfect storm."
About finding success in today's music marketplace. "I think people are still trying to do things the way they've always done 'em, and you can't do that now," said Smith.
He said the international markets are important — and that being creative and open to unconventional approaches rather than doggedly sticking strictly to the pop market is wise. As one example, Smith saidhe just finished a pair of dance mixes.
"That whole [dance radio] market is massive," said Smith. "I love that we're thinking out of the box and thinking differently. Because the record business is broken. And the old model here — it honestly can't be fixed, really. Is there a new day? Yes, there is. And I'm excited about that."
Expanding on what he meant by the record business as "broken," Smith said many outlets no longer sell CDs at all. "Eventually, nobody's going to sell CDs," he said. "So the record business, in terms of record sales, continues to decline. I think you just have to think differently, and you have to really get really creative."
He added, "You don't have to be with a record company [now]. It's the very first time in my career that I've never been with a major label, on both of these records. It's a whole different ballgame."
About Nashville's Bridge ministry and the "Love Always Wins" video. Smith released a special video last month, called "Love Always Wins." The background music and lyrics are from his song "Love Always Wins." In it, the videographers captured a visit Smith and his team made to Nashville's The Bridge ministry and the homeless population it serves.
"Every Tuesday night, under the Jefferson St. Bridge in Nashville, they feed the homeless. There's probably 50 to 100 people down there helping feed 500 or 600 people, or however many show up. So I went down and sang for all those people, and served food, and shared my story, and we captured that on film. And it was just incredible."
"I think it's beautiful," he added. "And I think people will be genuinely moved by what they see."
About the role of Christians in bringing justice to the world. Smith said his worship experience record was inspired by a passage in Amos, the thrust of which he summed up this way: "Basically God seems a little ticked."
He favors Eugene H. Peterson's interpretation of the passage in "The Message," which says, in Smith's words, "I'm tired of your music. Turn it off. You know what I want? I want justice to roll like a waterfall."
"I'll tell you what," added Smith. "[That passage] threw me up against the wall and made me totally re-examine everything that I'm doing."
"If you want justice to roll like a waterfall, then, if you want to be in step with God, let's go be about justice. And justice is the poor and the orphans and the widows — those in the gutter."
So what would that look like? "You wouldn't have any homeless people on the street. Church would step up ... [People would be] feeding the poor. And people [would be] standing up and fighting for kids that are in sex slavery. And getting out there and making a difference."
"If you want justice to roll like a waterfall, then, if you want to be in step with God, let's go be about justice. And justice is the poor and the orphans and the widows, those in the gutter."
"Read all the scriptures," Smith advised wisely. "The stuff that God talks about that really resonates with His heart is all about [justice and the church stepping up]."
About his role as an artist and a Christian. Smith emphasized that the role of Christians is to glorify Christ and to be His hands and feet. He said he feels called to do what he does for a living and feels that he, and everyone else, has something special to contribute that can help change the world.
He said he greatly values the fact that his job gives him a platform for living out his faith.
Ever humble, Smith said, "You know, the most exciting thing about my job, honestly, is the platform. It's not the awards. Most of my awards are in a closet, and you can't even see them. I'm just not going to make a shrine. That's just not who I am."
"We all have something to contribute, and so [let's] find out what that is — and let's go do it," he concluded.
Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to LifeZette.