Behind the clean-cut image all was not squeaky clean in the private life of CCM superstar MICHAEL W SMITH. But now older and wiser he has returned to record possibly his most compelling album. Jan Willem Vink reports.
The building of a Christian music superstar is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Take for instance the marketing campaign Michael W Smith's record company Reunion has put up to promote the release of Smith's latest album 'I'll Lead You Home'. Reunion president Terry Hemmings has been quoted as saying the total campaign was budgeted a little under $500,000.
It seems like Hemmings and his co-workers can be pleased. Through its initial sales 'I'll Lead You Home' has risen quickly to a No. 16 spot in America's national pop album charts. This is significant since 'I'll Lead You Home' was only released on the Christian market where the sales normally aren't counted for the Billboard charts. With the recent adoption of the electronic monitoring of music sales known as Soundscan by Christian bookstores, the big CCM stars are now beginning to register on national pop charts.
Michael W Smith's new album is a significant one, for more reasons than its huge marketing push or its mainstream chart success. For 'I'll Take You Home' Reunion Records have paired the singer/keyboards man with producer Patrick Leonard, who is known for his work with artists like Madonna, Peter Cetera and Kenny Loggins. Together Smith and Leonard have turned out one of Smith's most overtly Christian projects since his earliest recordings.
Comments Terry Hemmings in CCM Update: "I consider the Christian marketplace to be not only Christian retail outlets, but mainstream outlets as well. I think there has been a lot of confusion about what the 'Christian' marketplace is. Because of Michael's base and prior presence in mainstream AC radio, I think anything he gives us will be serviceable there. His 'First Decade' project has sold three to four times as much in mainstream retail outlets as it has in Christian."
The album reflects a new, more thoughtful and honest musical approach for Smith. "A lot of things have changed in three years since I recorded 'Change Your World'," comments Michael. "With a wife and five kids, I've certainly got more responsibilities. Some of the changes have not been easy, but, to tell you the truth, I still feel like a kid myself and I think I always will."
Michael W Smith grew up in Kenova, West Virginia, a small town of 5,000 inhabitants that currently has even got its own Michael W Smith street. Although Michael was raised in a stable Christian family and Michael made a decision to follow Jesus at a young age, Michael's life took a dramatic turn in his late teenage years. Michael was one of the younger members of his church youth group and once the other members moved on to a married or professional life, Michael was left alone. "All my friends my age were out drinking beer and being kind of crazy. Me, I was over there with my older friends, with my Bible, singing, praying, studying. I was into it."
When Michael lost his support group he found he did not have the strength to stand alone without that circle of stronger, helpful friends. And he slipped away from faith.
Michael developed a stronger interest in music and moved to Nashville, like many other young, aspiring musicians. Comments Michael: "I really started losing touch when I moved to Nashville, around April of 78. I was smokin' marijuana, drinking, doing some other drugs; just crazy, you know. My mom and dad knew what I was doing. Mom later told me that she had found a bag of pot under my mattress when I was still living at home. But they never hassled me, they just prayed for me. And I felt convicted by God. Every time I'd wake up I knew this wasn't me. But I couldn't change myself."
Michael, doing all sorts of jobs around Nashville, moved in with a band member from a secular band he joined and found out this man was a drug dealer. "I was at a crossroad: if this guy was busted, I would get busted too. And I was also feeling this heavy conviction from God. It was like, here he was protecting me, but I felt so unworthy. So guilty. But I stayed there for two or three months, doing the club thing. Then I moved out. And I felt so relieved to put that behind me.
"A month later one of the guys called to let me know that Red, one of the drug contacts who was always coming over and bringing two, three, 400 hits of LSD - all kinds of stuff - had been found on the interstate with four bullets in his head."
Michael was leading a double life. On one hand he would be drinking and smoking pot. On the other hand he would end up talking to people about God. Then, on a November night, in his apartment in Nashville, the full weight of his wasted life fell on him. That night Michael cried, "Lord, I can't do it. I am really going to commit my life to you. I want you to intervene in my life."
Michael changed. The first thing he did the next morning was to call home. That same day Michael was offered a job as a piano player with a Christian band named Higher Ground. Michael joined the band and again called home. He later found out that his mom had been on her knees every night praying for Michael. The time with the band became a time of healing for Michael. "I was with the band for eight months, singing in churches, and just spending time with the guys. We were in the Word and some of those churches we went to were just phenomenal. We met some genuine guys."
After leaving Higher Ground, Michael started focussing more on songwriting for his publishing company Paragon. It was there that he met his wife and married her four months later! He moved to another publishing company and started to write songs with his wife. Michael started touring as a keyboard player with Amy Grant and quickly was offered to do some of his own recordings, which resulted in his debut album 'Michael W Smith Project' and 'Michael W Smith 2'. His debut album included his hit song "Friends" which immediately gave him lots of recognition.
When Michael started recording his third album 'The Big Picture', the musical climate started changing. A&M had released Amy Grant's 'Unguarded' which had some success (for a Christian album lots of success) and USA Today was already labelling The Big Picture' as the next crossover album. Despite a change in image and working closely with producer John Potoker, also known for his work with the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Phil Collins, The Big Picture', although a land mark recording in Christian music, failed to be the crossover success Smith, his record company and management had hoped for. Says Michael, "A&M Records vibe was that it didn't have it. We got carried away with the pop thing because of all the hype on this record. It was hard for a few days, but I had to face the fact that this was not meant to be. God allowed 'The Big Picture' not to be the big crossover record. You deal with that. A&M and my managers were hyping the record, then A&M got all their big guys together and they don't see it."
Showing page 1 of 2