Born Michael Whitaker Smith on October 7, 1957, in Kenova, WV; son of Paul and Barbara Smith; married, wife's name, Deborah; children: Ryan, Whitney, Tyler, Emily, and Anna. Addresses: Record company--Reunion Records, 741 Cool Springs Blvd. E., Franklin, TN 37067, website: http://www.reunionrecords.com. Management--Blanton/Harrell, Inc., 2910 Poston Ave., Nashville, TN 37203. Website--Michael W. Smith Official Website: http://www.michaelwsmith.com.
Called a "true Renaissance [man] of contemporary Christian music" by Billboard, gospel singer Michael W. Smith gained popularity with mainstream audiences as well. His beautiful ballads and dance songs featuring a driving rock beat have, in fact, attracted a diverse body of listeners. As one young teen told him at a record store promotion, according to the Wall Street Journal, "I don't believe in religion ... but hey, that's cool. I still like your song."
Smith was born on October 7, 1957, and grew up in a small West Virginia town, singing in the church choir and playing in a few local rock bands. After graduating from high school, he tried college for a couple of years but did not find what he was looking for and returned home. In 1978 he discovered his calling when a Nashville music publisher showed some interest in a few of his songs. He packed his bags and moved to Tennessee.
At first, Smith's move was not all that he'd hoped. "I went off the deep end and got into drugs, which messed me up for a while," he confided to the Wall Street Journal. He was using marijuana, LSD, and cocaine until one day in 1979, when, he said, "I hit the floor in my apartment face down and cried like a baby for two hours. I got up, said a prayer to God to turn me around and its been different ever since.... I regret that I did drugs, but it has helped me relate to others with similar problems due to drugs and low self-esteem."
Indeed, life turned around for Smith--personally and professionally. He met his future wife, Deborah, in Nashville and wrote several songs with her that were so successful that in 1981, Meadowgreen Music hired him as a staff writer. He then proceeded to write several big hits for gospel superstars Sandi Patti and Amy Grant, and in 1982, he began playing keyboards for Grant and touring in her band. After he released his first album, Michael W. Smith Project, in 1983, he started opening for Grant with his own act.
Numerous honors have accompanied Smith's growing popular success. In 1983, one of his songs, "How Majestic Is Your Name," was a hit for Patti, received a Dove Award nomination (the gospel music equivalent of the Grammy), and he was himself nominated for a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance for his first album. The following year, he received three Dove nominations and won the Grammy for Best Gospel Performance, for his second album, Michael W. Smith 2.
After his sophomore release, Smith began touring on his own, performing his own material. Although he enjoyed writing songs for and performing with Grant, his own career beckoned. "I've got to start hanging on to some of these good songs," he reasoned in the Los Angeles Times. His writing style began to change. "I have a new lyric vision," he revealed to Bob Darden of Billboard. "I think I'm aiming more of my writing for kids, young people, teenagers.... I think musically it is going to be more rock 'n' roll, more on the edge, riskier ... because that's what the kids are listening to."
To be sure, Smith's lyrics soon encompassed secular issues of concern to a younger audience. His third album, The Big Picture, included songs like "Wired for Sound," which discusses media brainwashing, "The Last Letter," about teen suicide, and "Old Enough to Know," a depiction of the sexual pressures facing teenagers. Smith's album i 2 (Eye) was noted by music critics as something new in gospel music. Smith also wrote his first book about teen pressures titled, like the song, Old Enough to Know. Billboard's Darden expressed his belief that the record "may be the first inspirational album with a legitimate shot at capturing a mainstream audience." Darden's assessment proved prophetic, for this was Smith's first gold record.
Smith was undeniably interested in going mainstream, taking his message to a wider audience, but he knew he had a fine line to tread. "I can't imagine radio playing songs that overtly talk about 'Jesus is the answer,'" he allowed in the Los Angeles Times, "but on the other hand, I think there is room on pop radio for songs that are very spiritual." Smith's manager, Michael Blanton, agreed. "Listeners are tired of being hit over the head with dance and rap in recent years," he told the Wall Street Journal. "Now they're looking for melodies that they can sing to and [that] have meaning."
Took Message to the Mainstream
In 1991 Smith got help in his effort to go mainstream when his label, Reunion Records, signed a distribution deal with Geffen Records, one of the hottest rock labels in the business, featuring a roster that includes such supergroups as Guns N' Roses and Aerosmith. Once under Geffen's wing, Smith received dual marketing, with different strategies for the secular market and the more traditional Christian market. The approach worked; both of his Reunion/Geffen efforts, Go West Young Man and Change Your World, quickly went gold.
While he has been financially and artistically successful, Smith's courting of the pop market has been criticized by some fans as too secular. One fan who was quoted by the Wall Street Journal wrote Smith to complain of her worries "that he will throw away his message and lose his ministry to make it in the secular market." A few Christian book stores and radio stations have pulled his material. One bookstore owner told the Journal, "Mr. Smith may lose some Christian fans by going this route. He must be willing to pay that price."
Still, Smith does not feel that he has sacrificed his religious message, and he believes his music has something to offer everyone. As a mainstream pop artist, he told Billboard, "I've got an incredible platform--what a great opportunity to help somebody." Certainly, his songs maintain a strong Christian orientation. "When the Evil Goes East, Go West," for instance, from Go West Young Man, urges listeners to avoid the dangers of temptation, while "For You" sings the praises of friendship.
Smith told Billboard that he has made a conscious effort not to change his message just to appeal to more people. "I had to be careful that I not get swayed into thinking that 'I had a Top Five hit, now we've got to write a pop record....' I had to be careful that that didn't distract me from who I really am." He claims that Geffen did not want him to change his music either. "John Kalodner [of Geffen] just said 'Be yourself, man. Be who you are, continue to do what you do.'" But Smith also admitted to Billboard, "I don't feel that all of my songs have to be about God." After all, he told the Wall Street Journal, "I'm not an evangelist, I'm a singer."
Whatever the proportions, Smith's mix of the secular and the sacred has flourished. He has been cited by Keyboard magazine as a top rock keyboardist, has earned several Grammy nominations and Dove awards, and has hit the top of Billboard's charts. Geffen's Robert Smith characterized Smith's appeal in Billboard in 1992, explaining, "With Michael it's really about an honesty of presentation, and he's a sincere, well-meaning, and gifted artist." The fans, an ever-increasing number of which are coming from traditional rock and pop backgrounds, seem to agree.
Founded a Record Company
In 1995, Smith released I'll Lead You Home. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album. Rocketown Records was founded in 1996 when Smith joined forced with Reunion Records executive Don Donahue. Their goal, according to Smith's website, was to be "part of a label where great songs were the focus, where artists, not acts, were developed." Their first signing was Chris Rice.
Smith worked on developing his writing career, and in 1997, released two books, called It's Time to Be Bold, and Friends Are Friends Forever. The following year, the book Your Place in this World was released.
Smith's 1999 album This is Your Time was born out of the tragedy that happened in Littleton, Colorado, when two students shot twelve students and a teacher at Columbine High School in 1999. The Governor of Colorado asked Smith to sing at the memorial service. Smith was very moved by the story of student Cassie Bernall, who had answered "Yes, I believe in God," right before she was shot and killed. Smith wrote the song "This is Your Time" about her. The album won multiple Dove awards.
In 2001, Smith hit a grand slam with his album, Worship. The album was advertised through Time-Life television commercials, and became a huge hit. The followup album Worship Again soon followed in 2002, and the two were often sold as a set.
Smith was then approached about a new kind of project. He was asked to be the reader for an audio called The Gospels Come to Life. Smith was hesitant at first, but was persuaded, and the CD box set narration of the four gospels was released in 2003.
Also, in 2003, Smith released The Second Decade: 1993-2003. The album showed the maturity and growth in his music since The First Decade. Smith explains the new depth in his music for Christianity Today, "Your priorities change when you get older and have kids. You find out what's important." He adds, "That album is my favorite thing I've ever done. I think it's the truest reflection of who I am as a musician."
by Robin Armstrong and Sarah Parkin
Michael W. Smith's Career
Moved to Nashville, TN, 1978; staff songwriter at Meadowgreen Music, 1981; performed with singer Amy Grant, beginning in 1982; opened for Grant, 1983; released Project, 1983; released Go West Young Man, 1990; released The First Decade: 1983-1993; released two books, It's Time to be Bold and Friends Are Friends Forever, 1997; started New River Fellowship, 1999; performed at memorial service after school shooting at Columbine High School, 1999; released Worship, 2001; released Worship Again, 2002; released The Second Decade: 1993-2003, 2003.
Michael W. Smith's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Gospel Performance, Male, 1984; American Music Award, Favorite New Artist, Adult Contemporary, 1992; Grammy Award, Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album, 1995; Dove Awards: Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year, 1987, 1991, 1999, 2001; Long Form Music Video of the Year, 1988, 2003; Short Form Music Video of the Year, 1990, 2000; Song of the Year, 1992, 2000; Choral Collection Album of the Year, 1992; Praise and Worship Album of the Year, 1994, 2002, 2003; Musical Album of the Year, 1995; Songwriter of the Year, 1996, 2000; Special Event Album of the Year, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999; Children's Music Album of the Year, 1998; Enhanced CD of the Year, 1998; Artist of the Year, 1999, 2002; Producer of the Year, 1999; Youth/Children's Musical of the Year, 2001; Inspirational Recorded Song of the Year, 2002; Instrumental Album of the Year, 2002; Male Vocalist of the Year, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Michael W. Smith Project Reunion, 1983.
- Michael W. Smith 2 Reunion, 1984.
- The Big Picture Reunion, 1986.
- The Live Set Reunion, 1987.
- i 2 (Eye) Reunion, 1988.
- Michael W. Smith Christmas Reunion, 1989.
- Go West Young Man Reunion, 1990.
- Change Your World Reunion, 1992.
- The First Decade: 1983-1993 Reunion/RCA, 1993.
- The Wonder Years Reunion, 1994.
- I'll Lead You Home Reunion, 1995.
- Live the Life Reunion, 1998.
- Christmastime Reunion, 1998.
- This is Your Time Reunion, 1999.
- Freedom Reunion, 2000.
- Worship Reunion, 2001.
- Worship Again Warner Bros., 2002.
- The Second Decade: 1993-2003 Reunion, 2003.
- Selected witings
- Old Enough to Know W Publishing, 1996.
- It's Time to Be Bold Doubleday, 1997.
- Friends Are Friends Forever Tommy Nelson, 1997.
- Your Place in this World Tommy Nelson, 1998.
- This is Your Time Provident Music Group,1999.
- Cooking with Smitty's Mom Tommy Nelson, 1999.
- Where's Whitney? Zondervan, 1999.
- I Will Be Your Friend Thomas Nelson, 2001.
- Worship Thomas Nelson, 2002.
- The Price of Freedom J. Countryman, 2002.
- Signs Tommy Nelson, 2004.
- Billboard, November 16, 1985; October 29, 1988; September 19, 1992; February 28, 2004.
- Campus Life, March-April 2002, p. 26.
- Forbes, May 11, 1992.
- Keyboard, February 1993.
- Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1991; March 29, 1993; June 20, 1993.
- Time, September 21, 1992.
- Wall Street Journal, September 11, 1991.
- Dove Awards Website, http://www.doveawards.com (April 25, 2004).
- "Michael W. Smith," Christianity Today Website, http://www.christianitytoday.com (March 24, 2004).
- Michael W. Smith Official Website, http://www.michaelwsmith.com (March 24, 2004).
- Recording Academy Grammy Awards, http://www.grammy.com (April 25, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was provided by the management firm Blanton/Harrell, Inc., 1993.