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Michael W. Smith looks back: 'I've got an extraordinary redemption story'

Musician Michael W. Smith performs during funeral services for Rev. Billy Graham at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte on March 2, 2018. Smith is currently on a 35 Years of Friends tour.

DAVID T. FOSTER III, CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/TNS

By JIM HARRINGTON | The Mercury News | Published: March 8, 2020

Michael W. Smith has posted some eye-popping stats over the years.

His many accomplishments include releasing 30-plus top 10 albums -- more than half of which, mind you, went all the way to No. 1 on the Christian music charts.

That certainly qualifies him as one of the genre’s most successful artists. Yet, he has also triumphed as a crossover act on the pop charts during a solo career that extends back to the early ’80s.

The Mercury News recently spoke with Smith, who is currently on his 35 Years of Friends Tour.

Can you believe it’s been 35 years since your first Friends tour in 1985?
It’s kind of crazy. I wake up every day and pinch myself. I’m still doing it. And I’m loving it. I am having a blast. We did this television special and all these people showed up for 35 years of Friends at Bridgestone Arena (in Nashville).
It was such an amazing night that we thought, "Well, gosh, let’s take it on the road."
We did the tour in the fall and it was very successful. So, here’s the second leg. And we are coming your way.

What’s the set list look like for this tour?
We go all the way back to Record 1. There are some pretty sweet medleys, you know? We go back to (the 1992 album) "Change Your World." I haven’t done "Go West Young Man" (1990) in a long time, so I am doing that one. Obviously, "Place in this World" (1990). I love the "Change Your World" medley, which ends with "Cross of Gold."

Those are some good songs.
Really my favorite part of the night is when we do this little acoustic set. We kind of pull everybody upfront and we really go down memory lane. We go back playing things like "This Is Your Time" (1999) and "Missing Person" (1998) -- which is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written and it’s been a long time since I’ve done that.
I sing a lot, man -- for 2 1/2 hours. I didn’t know if I was going to make it through the fall tour. It’s just a lot of singing when you’re singing 40 some songs every night.
And we obviously make a turn in the second half and kind of take it vertical -- a lot of worship time.
It’s a great night. It’s almost three hours long. It’s a long night. But I think people love it.

Looks like you’ve been pretty busy over the past few months.
I’ve been a little busy. (Laughs) I went right from first leg of the 35 Years of Friends tour to a TV special with CeCe Winans. And I’m also in rehearsals with Amy (Grant) and I’m off on a Christmas tour. I finish the Christmas tour on Dec. 22 and you walk in and there is 25 people in your house -- which I wouldn’t have any other way; it’s just all my family for Christmas.
It didn’t really end until Jan. 6. And then I went into a coma.
Yeah, it was a busy, busy fall. But I loved it. It was incredible. And I’m enjoying just pulling back and resting before this tour kicks off.

You recorded your first album, "Michael W. Smith Project," in 1982 - and released it the following year. Looking back, did you ever dream you’d still be doing this nearly 40 years later?
I’m not really sure that I saw that back then. I mean, I was confident that this is what God wanted me to do with my life, in terms of a vocation.
I think I was so giddy at the moment. I vividly remember -- I can still see it -- looking at my wife, who I’d been married to for almost a year when we finished that record, and it’s 1 a.m. at the studio and I’m just, "You know what? This is a dream come true. If I never get to do another record again, I got to make one record. And I couldn’t ask for more."
I was just so excited about the first album -- that I actually got to do it.

Both you and Amy Grant were honored by the ASCAP for being "cornerstones of Christian music." How does it feel to be recognized as such an influential artist in the genre?
I’m grateful, first and foremost. I’m glad I could contribute with what I did.
But I think the only time I ever disagree with some of that is that I’m not really a pioneer. There were really pioneers before me -- people like Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, the whole Jesus movement that came out of Calvary Chapel in California. Those people were paving the way in the late ’60s and especially early ’70s. Those artists were the ones who inspired me to do what I do.

But you and Amy did bring a new kind of sound to the genre.
Amy and I kind just had this pop thing that we were doing. Everything was rock and folk (in the genre). And we sort of unleashed these pop things that maybe hadn’t been done on some level. We had a lot of radio play. We embarked on something pretty cool. We were just doing what we loved. But we certainly found out pretty quick that millions were embracing it. It was a great ride, man. Those ’80s and ’90s are times I’ll never forget.

So many of your songs deal with redemption. What draws you to that theme? Does it have anything to do with your own back story?
Well, I’ve got an extraordinary redemption story, honestly. I mean, I should have died. I almost died of a drug overdose. I was reckless. I made a lot of bad choices. And it all came to an end in 1979. My life just completely changed, after a nervous breakdown and just the grace of God, you know?

Yes, I do know.
That’s available to everyone. And I think probably because of having that experience, and almost falling off a cliff and losing my life, I love being able to write about that.
You see the world we are living in now. Just what kids are going through -- the whole social media thing, the bullying and all that stuff. God, it’s just awful.
I love getting to sing those songs of redemption. I know, for sure, that those songs have really changed people’s lives. People who were suicidal and heard one of my songs and pull off to the side of the road and just had an epiphany -- had just a massive encounter with God -- and just haven’t been the same since.
Those stories never get old, I can tell you that.

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