Michael W. Smith - Forever And Beyond

by John A. Wilcox

I first became aware of Michael W. Smith back in 1986 as a player on Amy Grant's 1985 album Unguarded. In 1987 his label sent me his first live album, The Live Set, and I was hooked for life! Cut to 2024. The Christian superstar is in the midst of his Forever tour. I was able to grab "Smitty" (as he is known) on March 1 to discuss his past, present & future. Put on your comfy socks and join us...

PS: What is the overall concept for the Forever tour?

MWS: Oh, man! We're trying to celebrate 40 years of music into a 2 1/2 hour evening, which is very difficult. But I think we've figured it out. You obviously want to play songs that people love and cherish. And play songs that were a part of the fabric of their lives. We go down memory lane. We go back to the 80s and we go to the 90s. We play songs that we haven't played in a long, long time. That's been the exciting part of the evening - to watch people gasp. See people cry when they grab your hand. You always get the feeling "Oh my gosh they remember exactly where they were when they first heard that song!" That's kind of fun from a nostalgic point. And then we take everybody right up to what's going on currently. We're off to a good start. We're really feeling - I mean I'm changing the show always. I'm always changing it up. Even here in Indiana. "What if we did this? And What if we did that?" Which is kinda fun. It keeps us on our toes. I think we're about 99% there. We're feeling good about it!

PS: How have the audiences been reacting?

MWS: Great! Just awesome! Great. So good. And they're all ages. They're 70. Sometimes there are people that are 80! We've got people in their 20s - 30s. People bring their kids. I saw 2 teenagers about 14-15 that were down on the right. It's fun to see families come. It's really kind of cool. It's so weird because I've been doing this for a long time - but to be able to see these young kids who somewhat become fans of mine because their mom and dad obviously shared the music with them. That's kind of fun. I think maybe I've still got the touch (laughing) with the young kids!

PS: I think that's safe to say!

MWS: Well, I'm very, very grateful for that.

PS: What you do has always touched the lives of young people.

MWS: Well, John, I'm just grateful for that. I don't know what to say. Sometimes you can't orchestrate these things. You just follow your heart and you make the music that you feel called to make. You write the books that you feel you're supposed to write. Then, once that's finished you just let it go and just say God just do your thing! Let it be a tool for you to draw people toward you. It is fun. It's pretty crazy to hear somebody say "You know Michael, I came to your concert. I came to the Big Picture tour or the Change Your World tour." I forget which tour it was, but it was a long time ago. She said "I got saved at your show!" You know what? That's worth my whole career. That 1 story. That's why I do what I do.

PS: I noticed that you're playing Awesome God by the late great Rich Mullins in the set. How did you first connect with Mullins?

MWS: Rich and I were label mates. We were both on the same label - Reunion Records. So I knew Rich back in the day - all the way in the 80s, you know. We became friends. I didn't see him much. He didn't live in Nashville very long. But I was a huge fan. Still am. Still - in my opinion nobody has taken Rich's place. Nobody wrote songs like Rich.

I did the first Worship album that was released on 9/11 of all days. I wanted Awesome God to be on that record. Then all of a sudden everyone is seeing it all around the world and I'm still singing it. I created a completely new arrangement on Awesome God, which is probably my 4th or 5th arrangement of Awesome God, but I came up with something completely different for the tour. So far the response has been pretty overwhelming.

PS: Why do you think Awesome God has touched so many people across the world?

MWS: I don't know, John. I can't tell you. It's like Agnus Dei or Friends. What is it about it? I have no idea! You take the right melody and you put the right chords and there's something about the marriage of that and the lyric. It's a mystery to me. It still is to this day. How a 3 1/2 minute song can just completely change somebody's life. That's astonishing to me.

PS: It's the power of music!

MWS: There you go!

PS: Why did you put Never Been Unloved into the set?

MWS: I love that song. Well, I think people love that song. People have commented on that song for a long, long time. That's from the Live The Life record. I'm doing it because I think the lyric is just amazing on every level. I can say that because I didn't write it! (laughs) I'm off the hook ego-wise there. But I did write the music. I wrote the music on guitar. I king of thought about what the song needed to be about. About the love of God for people. I gave it to Wayne Kirkpatrick and Wayne just started writing this - "I've been this. I've been that. I've been that." And I'm like "Oh my gosh! This is amazing!" I just think that the lyric is incredible. Everywhere I go I believe really for this tour for some reason I think people need to hear this song and they need to hear the lyric.

PS: Whenever I listen to Cross Of Gold I hear Yes & Genesis influences in parts of it.

MWS: Yeah. (laughs) A little bit of Genesis. Yes. Peter Gabriel. I grew up listening to a lot of that stuff in the 70s / 80s. And I love crazy changes. I meant to get rowdy there. I meant to get crazy chords on the chorus. I still love playing it. I love that it's in the setlist. We love playing it every night. It's just a pure joy for me.

PS: I love the harmonic changes and those background vocals!

MWS: Well I have to give a shout out to my co-producer on that record which was Mark Heimermann. He really came up with a lot of those background vocals. Those kind of answering "Why? Why? Please tell me why you wear your cross of gold." That was a lot of Mark, and Wayne was singing on that too. So we had some amazing vocalists that were doing all these incredible background vocals. But Mark was the super-arranger helping with a lot of those vocal arrangements for sure.

PS: What's the newest song in the set?

MWS: Hmmmmm...the newest song in the set. Let me think about that. Probably Sky Spills Over. That's not very new.

PS: Do you do A Million Lights by any chance?

MWS: It's not on the list in this set and we keep talking about it. "Guys, why is A Million Lights not on the list? I mean, I hear A Million Lights every time I walk into Walgreens! (laughs) It's on some music list. Why is this song not in the setlist?" So we might have to put it back in.

PS: Any new songs in the pipeline?

MWS: I'm always working on songs. I'm always writing songs. I'm pretty excited. I just got to hear Place In This World with for KING + COUNTRY. Kinda come full circle. This was inspired by a movie that's coming out about this family. And that's been fun. I've got this brand new song called Crimson Dust that comes out on the Easter EP. It comes out March 15. Originally written for an Easter special that I did with Franklin Graham in Israel just 6-7 weeks ago. I'm really excited by this song. I love, love, love, love the lyrics. I co-wrote that song with Tony Wood. He's written amazing Christmas songs with me.

PS: So the new EP is out on March 15?

MWS: Yup. It's called Worthy Is The Lamb.

PS: I see that you will be playing in Poland. Ever play there before?

MWS: I have. I was there just last year and it was unbelievable. Incredible.

PS: How do their audiences differ from ours?

MWS: Well, I don't want to get myself in trouble, but they're more passionate. I think that a lot of times in America we have it all. I think that we can get complacent a little bit here. We have everything. They don't. They were formerly a Communist country. They've been free for 30 something years. The history of what that country has been through I think has a lot to do with how people respond to the gospel. How people respond to the music. How they respond to my concert. It's overwhelming, Watching people weeping out there. Then they start singing your songs in Polish - and then I'm a mess. Hearing 9,000 people sing Agnus Dei in their own language is pretty overwhelming.

PS: Do you ever get a chance to absorb how many folks your music reaches and how many folks you're bringing the word of the Lord to?

MWS: I probably need to sit and ponder it a little more than I do. I honestly wake up and I say "God, thank you that I get to do what I get to do." Thankful that I get to touch peoples' lives and obviously acknowledge that I can't do this by myself. This is such a God thing. So, yeah. I probably need to do it more..

PS: You write a piece of music and it touches people you may never even meet. That's such a beautiful and powerful thing.

MWS: Yeah, it is. It really is..

PS: On a totally different subject : Any thought of remastering your early albums?

MWS: You talking about my catalogue?

PS: Yes.

MWS: Are you talking about the early records?

PS: Yes. For example, the original CD pressing of i 2 (EYE) is mastered waaaay to soft.

MWS: Oh yeah, I know. The Christmas album too. Christmas album's kind of soft.

Oh, we've talked about it! (laughs) We've talked about it and the issue with it is we've just got to go fight that fight a little bit with my previous label. 'Cos I'm not on Provident anymore. So, you know, we've got to go have a meeting with those guys and say "Hey, guys, I think these all deserve to be re-addressed." Some of those records need to be remastered for sure. There's no doubt. Thanks for bringing it up.

PS: The 3 concert videos too!

MWS: Yep! I'll get on it!

PS: That Big Picture video has insane energy!

MWS: Yeah. We were having some fun, weren't we?

PS: I imagine you still are!

MWS: Very grateful. I loved that tour. We were very creative. Doing crazy arrangements and just having so much fun, musically, to take it to a different level. We're kinda trying to get back to that a little bit. Try to re-arrange some of these songs. Create some different arrangements. We have a new arrangement of Awesome God. We have a new arrangement of Draw Me Close. I'm going back and doing something different arrangement-wise with these songs so it doesn't sound exactly the same way we've been doing it for years.

PS: Makes it new for you too.

MWS: Yes it is. And my whole band's that way. Even today at lunch I'm like "Guys, I got a wild idea!" "OK, let's go!" And we'll hash it out in soundcheck and we'll probably change the show up tonight!

PS: What's next?

MWS: You know what? I'm not sure. My year's kind of full. I'm going around the country 2-3 times. Going to finish this Spring tour. I've got a big Christmas tour coming up at the end of the year. You know what? I'm kind of excited about being back in the studio. I think I'm probably going to start working on another project and try to work with some people that I've not worked with before and really sort of re-invent myself. When I say that my management kind of cringes a little bit but I think you have to re-invent and I think there's a way to re-invent and still stay true to who you are.

PS: If I look at the depth & breadth of your catalogue, I'd say that change is your hallmark!

MWS: (laughing) Well, hopefully it'll be something fresh and new. And that's my plan. That's on the docket probably starting in May. I've actually already started on it, honestly. But May's a good window for me to say I'm officially jumping in and starting to record in the studio. We'll keep you posted!


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