Michael W. Smith, Shaping the Music

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Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Bono and Rich Mullins are names synonymous with musical genius. Their proclivity for making music that forever imprints the mind sets them as bricks in the legendary halls of music. If shaping the way music is made and attracting imitation are qualifications for musical greatness, another name must be added to the list: Michael W. Smith.

Ironically, in his 20th year of making hit music, Smith finds himself standing on unfamiliar ground. Having completed The Second Decade, a collection of 13 favorites and two new songs (including “Signs,” penned with son, Ryan), which releases Oct. 7, Smith is mulling over the questions, “Where am I going musically?” and “What is the next record?”

Creating this angst for Smith is his desire to reach higher, musically. He plans to reach those new heights with his current studio project, tentatively titled Fly To The Moon. Scheduled to release in March or April, Smith sees this album as groundbreaking — the compositional compass that will mark the future direction of his music. The very thought makes him uneasy.

“I go through these spurts where I worry about it, then I go through times when I’m optimistic and I think my best work is yet to come,” muses Smith. “It’s a weird thing. I don’t think it’s a mid-life crisis or anything. I have just been away (from pop music) for a while with Freedom, Worship, and Worship Again. I’m getting ready to turn a corner here and it’s a mystery.”

The owner of 40 Dove Awards, Smith has always known exactly what direction he would take with each album. Now, after a four-year rest from pop, he has more than 40 songs in his cache that he can’t envision on this new album. His loves are orchestra music like that found on Freedom and “the aggressive guitar thing,” as he calls his rock music. For Smith, musical nirvana would be a melding of these two diverse genres. He is uncertain if this is even a possibility. Of what he is certain is that this album mustn’t be mediocre, but earthshaking.

“I don’t want to just make another record and follow in that direction of ‘Oh, this is the next Smitty pop thing,'” he asserts with conviction. “I would rather quit and go do something else. I want to make something stellar.”

Stellar is what Smith believes depicts the four songs he does have ready for the album. He describes them as different from any music he has ever written: a range of styles from that of vintage Elton John to modern-day U2. “Musically aggressive.” “Surprising.” “Exciting.”

“Challenging” and “at another level” is how Terry Hemmings, president and CEO of Provident Music Group, describes Smith’s music — characteristics he says have been consistent throughout the singer-songwriter’s career. Hemmings says Smith is viewed as a leader in Christian music at his long-time label, Reunion Records, a division of Provident Music Group.

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“I spent the day with him yesterday, just hanging out and looking back and celebrating his 20th year,” says Hemmings. “The role he has taken and grown into is very much a role of leadership and mentoring for artists, and even for other people in the industry. I don’t think there is any doubt that he was the pinnacle in terms of record sales, but he had a very important role in developing and mentoring the younger artists on the label.”

Chris Rice, an artist on Smith’s Rocketown record label, is one who has benefitted from spending time with Smith. While on tour with Smith as his opening act on the “Live the Life” tour, Rice had a chance to observe and learn. Rice marvels at how Smith chooses the right combination of people to accompany him on tour: those who are spiritually wise, new believers who can learn from the more-seasoned Christians and some who would benefit from exposure to strong Christians who walk the talk.

“He put people (bus drivers, crew members and roadies) together purposefully so that they would build up and encourage each other,” recalls Rice. “When I tour now, I think back to how he treated people and think about how I can make a touring situation as comfortable as possible for them and as meaningful a time. Not to take advantage of them, but to make it a family atmosphere where everyone feels a part of everything.”

Impressive behavior from a star, you might say. But then Smith doesn’t consider himself a star, but a man of God, according to Rocketown Records President Don Donahue, who runs the label Smith founded.

“He is humble,” says Donahue of Smith. “Michael has become a lot less about his music and a lot more about pointing his audience to God and being a reflector of that. I think at this point in his career, he is getting the most fulfillment from leading worship and finding his pleasure in that.”

MercyMe, one of Christian music’s foremost worship bands, admires Smith’s great ability as a worship leader. While the members of MercyMe haven’t worked directly with Smith as yet — they plan to join Smith on the “Celebration” tour in October — the band sees him as a mentor and a source of great inspiration.

“I believe Smitty’s desire, and our desire, is to write songs that resonate long after he is gone and to be a modern-day psalmist,” says MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard. “He has already done that by the songs that he has written in the early days. Then, his being a worship leader and taking a step farther to mold and advance the contemporary Christian music industry as a whole ? he has taken them places they would have never gone otherwise.”

Copyright © 2004 Christian Music Planet, used with permission.

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