On the heels of releasing his second hymns album for Cracker Barrel’s Old Country Stores, Michael W. Smith took some time out of his ultra-busy schedule to talk to(Jesus Freak hide outs) Mark Rice about Hymns II, acting as one of Jesus’ disciples for a new “Passion” project, and his musical career…
(This interview took place on: February 19, 2016).
JFH (Mark Rice): First of all, you just released a hymns project two years ago, so why another one so soon?
Michael W. Smith: Well, I think the first one did so well, I think Cracker Barrel came back and said, “Man, would you consider doing another one?” And I said, “Yes, I’d love to.” This one is very different than the first one; the first one was mainly, you know, all the old hymns, and this one is kinda half-and-half, old and new.
- JFH (Mark): Yeah, I was wondering about that too, because I wondered about your rationale for including some of the songs that aren’t necessarily considered “hymns,” like the ones you wrote, “Shine On Us” and “Great is the Lord.”
Michael: Well, “Great Is The Lord” is in the hymn book now, which is really bizzare. (JFH: Oh, it is?) Yeah, one of the very few people who doesn’t have a deceased date beside my name, so it is really bizarre. “How Majestic,” “Great Is The Lord,” and “Thy Word” are in several hymnals, and have been for a while, actually. And I would just call them “modern hymns,” you know? I think you can do that with some of these. We stressed it maybe a bit, decided to do “Down To The River To Pray,” which is an old spiritual, and inspired by the Alison Krauss version from [the Coen Brothers movie] O Brother, Where Art Thou? I kinda Smittyfied it and made it my own, and I thought it was a great way to open up the record and kinda get everybody’s attention. And then the second cut is a song I sang my whole life growing up, “I Need Thee,” one of my favorites on the record. And then #3, you’ve got “Jesus Only Jesus,” Which is, I think, one of the brand new great worship songs. I mean, we’ve had our share of not-so-good worship songs, and people move words around too much. But I’ve been leading this song in my church for a year, and it works every time, so I’d glad we did that, so that is cut 3.
- JFH (Mark): You also included “America The Beautiful.”
Michael: Yes. It’s in the hymn book. *chuckle*
- JFH (Mark): Oh it is? I wouldn’t have figured that.
Michael: Well, you know, it depends on which hymn book you’re looking at. I mean, it is in my hymn book, but it may not be in the Methodist hymn book, you know? But yeah, you’ve got a whole patriotic page in the back of the Baptist hymnal. But I just love that song, it has been one of my favorite patriotic songs forever. I’m sure it has something to do with our country, and I wasn’t trying to make a political statement at all, I just thought, “What a great way to end the record with a patriotic song,” and my first thought was “America The Beautiful.”
- JFH (Mark): OK. It is a great song, I do love that one. Are there any songs you included that are particularly meaningful to you?
Michael: Yes. “Untitled Hymn” is a Chris Rice song that I’ve always loved. I sang it at a funeral. The first time I ever sang it was ten or eleven years ago, and it had always been one of my favorites. “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” has always been one of my favorite hymns of all time, which didn’t make the first record, I don’t know how.
- JFH (Mark): Did you record it for the first album?
Michael: No, I didn’t. It must not have made the cut. I’m always trying to figure out why it didn’t. But it must have been an oversight. I remember going though the hymnbook again, and I saw it and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t cut that song, I can’t believe I didn’t cut that song.” So it was one of the first songs on the “A” list to cut for this record. And I knew that I recorded that song for my first worship album. It was just this little impromptu thing that I go into “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” or at least I think I did. It may have been on Worship Again, but I know I did it. And then, you know, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” I remember sitting in the movie theatre, it was probably with Sister Act 2, and then hearing Lauryn Hill sing, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” and I just went “Wow! Oh my gosh,” you know? And, obviously that sing has been cut a million times, and that was probably the biggest thing for me. Who needs another person to sing “His Eye Is On The Sparrow?” But, you know what? A great song is a great song, and I just started fooling around with it arrangement-wise to see if I could come up with something unique, and I felt like I did, so it made the cut and made the record.
- JFH (Mark): Obviously, this time around, it was a lot more contemporary-sounding while the first go-around was a little more traditional. Did you intentionally approach this album this way, like “I’m going to be more contemporary,” or did the songs kinda call for that interpretation?
Michael: Well, I think the songs called for that a bit, and also, I think we all wanted it to be a little different than the first album, and the first one is pretty stripped-down and there is not a choir… or well, there is a choir on a few things, but a lot of it was just 3-part harmony. And we just felt like the songs just demanded some production. And then we brought them to my studio; I’ve got this amazing house which is a great place to record vocals, so we brought in the best singers in Nashville, and they just killed it, you know? It was just amazing, they sang on, not everything, but almost everything. An that obviously separates it from the first album as well.
- JFH (Mark): So, changing topics a little bit, I hear that you are working on something right now with FOX, the PASSION LIVE event. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Michael: Changed my life. Oh my gosh. I have a hard time talking about it cause I just get choked up. I just came off the set. I was down there for a week. I was involved musically, and involved as an actor, playing one of Jesus’ disciples. I know the director, I know the musical supervisor, and I was blown away by the script, and I was blown away by what I saw from the reel that was done in Holland. This whole thing came out of Holland. The creator is from there and has been done five years in a row there. So I just think of the last few days of Jesus’ life, you know, the Last Supper, the death and Resurrection, and it is just a really unique thing, all done with pop music. So I was blown away by the script, I was blown away by the cast. Dick Clark Productions have a huge budget, and I think it is going to be huge. And I’m just so glad I got to play a small part in it. It is a week that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. There were a lot of little things that really happened to me that was life-changing.
- JFH (Mark): That sounds awesome. When is that going to be shown?
Michael: Palm Sunday, March 20th, on FOX. At thepassion.com, if you go there it’ll give you information. It’s got Seal, Tricia Yearwood, Tyler Perry is narrating, and a couple Latin stars, Prince Royce and Jencarlos Canela are in it who play Peter and Jesus, and they were amazing. Jencarlos, what a sweet guy, and he killed it. So all the stuff when Jesus is with his disciples were filmed, and all the live stuff, the big production with Tyler Perry and Tricia, that is all live on this huge stage. And then it flashes back to the screen and Tyler Perry will set up this montage with Jesus and his disciples, and then all this film that was shot, it goes to those scenes. You’ve got us on the boardwalk, hanging out, in a coffee shop, then all of a sudden you’ve got the Last Supper which was extremely powerful, then you’ve got the betrayal of Jesus by Judas which is heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy. I mean, whew, it was really strong!
- JFH (Mark): It might be a little early to ask since you just put out an album, but are there any immediate plans as to your next steps, new albums tours, or other excursions?
Michael: I’m just doing the unplugged thing, mainly supporting the Cracker Barrel records the first part of the year. I have eight things on my board that I’d like to do, and I don’t know which one I’m gonna do yet. I’m not in any hurry. I just feel like I need to make the best record of my life, and if it takes me five years to do it, then I’m gonna take my time and do it. And I feel like I’ve gotta get an A-team of players. You know what was really fun? I was working with Adam Andrews. Adam did a few shows with me, he’s played with Steven Curtis forever, he moved to LA, and he became this huge music producer out there, doing Glee and tons of other stuff, but he’s one of the main reasons the PASSION has come to America. So I spent a whole week with Adam on the set. So maybe he’s going to be a player in this whole thing, heling me shape what is next for me. But you know, I’ve just gotta find and write ten or twelve amazing songs. I don’t know what that looks like right now. One of the things about the PASSION is that you’ve got all these songs on the soundtrack, they’re pop songs, but they work in the context of the story we’re telling. And some of these, the soundtrack, I’ve listened to it seven times, and it is just incredible because of the songs. I still believe in the song, that is where it begins. If you’ve got a great song, then you can go someplace. So that is where it is going to start with me, is the songs. And then we’re gonna figure out the team of producers and who is the record company, and who is gonna dive in and take this thing to another level. But, you know, I’m in no hurry, that’s the thing. I’m real at peace and we’re just gonna take our time and see what happens.
- JFH (Mark): So, you’ve been in the industry for a very long time. As the years have passed, how have you seen your role evolve in the Christian Music industry, and how do you see your role in the future?
Michael: Well, on a personal level, I don’t care if I win another award again. I love being in that sort of place. I’m not jealous of anybody else, I’m just real at peace. So that is really fun to be at that place in my life. You feel like you are hitting your sweet spot and I’m real supportive of everybody, and I have been for a long time, you know? I think for the role, in terms of some change, I think I’ve kinda taken a fatherly role, which I’ve embraced. People are coming to me, people’s marriages falling apart, and people trying to figure out how to do this thing, and they look at me and look at my marriage and look at my kids, which I’m pinching myself still to this day. 35 years I’ve been married to this amazing woman–or it will be 35 years in September–and my kids are awesome, and they all want to know how I did it, so I feel like I can impart some wisdom and get people to think a little bit about what they are doing. You know, you can’t be on the road 250 days of the year and raise a family. You can’t do it. It’s not gonna happen. So I think a little bit of that is what I look forward to in the future. Just trying to guide these young artists and help them make good choices and not bad ones.
- JFH (Mark): How has social media changed the way you operate and how the industry, as a whole, operates?
Michael: Well, nobody buys CDs anymore, and that’s a real problem. I mean, it is encouraging that Adele has, that was a little bright spot for the industry. But yeah, it is just a whole different way of doing things. You’ve got to think outside the box, and I’m so grateful that I’ve got some guys that work for me that feel like they have their pulse on the future and know what that whole thing looks like. But yeah, it is way different than when I started, that is for sure.
- JFH (Mark): For the last question, I’ve got kind of a more fun one. If you could form a musical quintet with you and any four other musicians, who would it be?
Michael: So me and four other musicians? Wooooow! Oh my gosh…
- JFH (Mark): Maybe people you’ve worked with before, or people you dream or working with.
Michael: Well, I’m thinking… I think Bono would be one of those people, it would be real fun to do something with Bono. I think it would be fun to take people from different genres, you know? Gosh, I’d probably say Jencarlos. I’ve only known him for a week, and the guy is unbelievable. So you’ve got a pop star and a rock star. Maybe take someone from our genre as well. Um… Jon Foreman! Jon would be awesome. So I’ve got four? And Chris Martin. How about that for a quintet?
- JFH (Mark): Nice, sounds awesome! When is the first album?
Michael: *chuckles* Yeah, that would make history.
Michael W. Smith’s latest album, Hymns II: Shine On Us is available now at Cracker Barrel’s Old Country Store!