There's no denying that when it comes to Christian music, Michael W. Smith looms large. He was part of a key group of artists in the 1980s that changed the face of Christian music by pairing timeless truths with modern sounds. Known for his hit songs such as "Friends", "Missing Person", "Go West Young Man" and more, Smith found a new musical sweet spot in the late 1990s with his worship projects. Now he's continuing to push himself creatively with his instrumental compositions.
Now, with 30 years under his belt, "Smitty" celebrated with a few hundred of his "friends" at the exclusive "Michael W. Smith & Friends - A Tennessee Weekend" event June 20-23 in his hometown of Franklin, Tenn.
Basically, it was the ultimate VIP fan experience for "Smitty fans." I'd liken it to a Michael W. Smith camp for grown-ups or like an intimate, miniature Christian music festival where the headliner plays a half-dozen sets and brings along some friends (no pun intended—OK, it was intended).
Some fans showed up a day early to the festivities—on Thursday night—to experience a special dinner, dessert, concert and recording studio experience. The dinner—billed as being prepared by "the best chef in Nashville"—was put together and captained by no other than Barbara Smith, Michael's mother. The entire thing existed to benefit Michael’s charity, Rocketown, which helps at-risk teens find a positive place to be after school.
On a perfect Franklin night, we enjoyed salmon with chipotle cranberry sauce, a special feta-and-fruit salad, and later, amazing white cake. We were fortunate enough to sit with Michael and his wife, Deb. Having never met Michael before, I didn't know what to expect from one of Christian music's all-time greats, and I was pleased to see how down-to-earth and, dare I say, normal he was. There was no hint of any ego or diva within him; he was just genuinely excited to see old friends and meet new ones.
We were treated to his first show of the night in a courtyard just a stone's throw from Michael's office near the famed Paragon Studios, which included songs such as "Love in His Right Hand" from A New Hallelujah, "Breathe In Me" from I'll Lead You Home, and of course, his breakout song "Friends" from his first album. It wasn't just a blast from the past in the intimate courtyard; he did a new song called "Take Me Home" that likely will find its way onto a new album of Smitty tunes in February/March 2014.
Fans got immediately familiar with that new song later that evening when they served as a studio choir on the track. At the world-famous, multi-million-dollar Paragon Studios—where Michael has recorded many times—two different groups of fans belted out three-part harmonies to the climactic chorus of the new song: "I wanna be forever / With You forever / Oh won't You take me home?" Whether or not the group's final product makes it onto the album remains to be seen, but everyone involved enjoyed getting a taste of the studio experience, while having Smitty be their choir director.
That was just the first night, and the official weekend festivities hadn't even begun! Friday kicked off with a fantastic dinner that sought to benefit and bring awareness to Family Affair Ministries—a non-profit organization that provides resources to low-income families and seeks to eliminate the things that keep people in poverty. Then, the magnificent Liberty Hall at The Factory was converted from restaurant to concert venue.
From the opening notes of “Carry On My Wayward Son,” you knew the night was going to be something special. Michael’s good friend, former Kansas frontman and Christian musician John Elefante, lent his formidable pipes to do a special set with brother, Dino, on guitar, playing songs such as “Carry On”, “Dust In The Wind” and even a new one from his latest solo effort, On My Way to the Sun.
If that wasn’t enough, it was followed by a Smitty set that was very different than the intimate gathering of the first night. For some of you who are uneducated or uninitiated, hear this: Smitty still rocks. Although he began and ended his set with passionate worship, Michael and his band wailed on songs like the throwback “Wired For Sound” (from 1986’s The Big Picture) and “The River is Rising” (from 2008’s A New Hallelujah).
After a speedy tour through his discography, Michael devoted the second half of his set to worship, leading the assembled in powerful renditions of “Mighty to Save”, “Above All”, “Majesty”, “Healing Rain” and “Agnus Dei” and “I Am Free.”
“It’s hard to survive success in this business,” Smith said to the crowd—which included recent American Idol alum Scott MacIntosh and his wife, Christina. Michael said the music business takes a toll on people, and sincerely thanked his most steadfast fans for their fervent ongoing support over the years. “Your prayers kept me alive.”
Saturday morning began with a special time of worship—led by Michael and his son-in-law, Jack Mooring of Christian band Leeland—as well as devotionals shared by Michael’s wife, Debbie. Mooring, who sings backup in the band for his younger brother, Leeland Mooring, showed his own vocal prowess and heart for worship as he led simple-yet-profound renditions of “Your Love Never Fails”, “10,000 Reasons” and “You’re Worthy of It All” (from IHOP worship).
“I feel like my flame is small,” admitted Smith in a moment of vulnerability during the devotional time. “It used to be a big ol’ flame. I want my flame to be a roaring fire.”
The organizers of the event called the Tennessee Weekend a “land cruise,” and like any cruise, there were excursions. People fanned out all over the Nashville/Franklin area, taking in sights, shopping and listening to music. In the mid-afternoon, everyone converged on Smitty’s sprawling acreage outside of Franklin, called Deer Valley Farm.
A long, winding path from the street through the woods provided an air of mystery as people approached the Smiths’ personal retreat space. Upon arriving, guests lined up to take their photos with Michael, enjoying the bluegrass stylings of a hired quartet while they waited.
Beyond the photo line was a Tennessee theme park of sorts on the Deer Valley property, with multiple cornhole games available, hot air balloon rides (tethered, of course) and skeet shooting. NRT’s Founder, Kevin McNeese, and I approached these games with some friendly competition in mind. Check out the results of that here.
Smitty himself took part in the activities, playing a rousing round of cornhole with his immediate family. When asked whether her husband was competitive in such family activities, Deb Smith’s eyes widened. “Oh yes!” she said.
A flowing pond and a towering willow tree served as a backdrop for the main event of the evening, which of course meant more music. Jason Gray kicked things off with a few songs of his own, including “More Like Falling in Love” and “Remind Me Who I Am.”
He was followed by a special unannounced guest: country music superstar Wynonna Judd. Wynonna—who is Smith’s neighbor—praised Smith for reaching out and inviting her to his farm. The more seasoned individuals in the crowd were delighted to hear a number of her career hits, including “Heaven Help my Heart” and her rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
After getting a standing ovation from the still-shocked and enthusiastic crowd, Michael took the stage with Brandon Heath., Ben Glover and Tom Douglas for a special Nashville experience: Writers in the Round. This kind of thing, which happens a lot in Nashville, features songwriters talking about their tunes and singing them with one another to build community and appreciation for the art. Glover and Douglas aren’t active performers in their own rights, but masterfully performed the story-songs they’d written for country and Christian artists. In particular, Glover’s performance of “Stronger”—which was recorded by Mandisa—totally presented the song in a new, almost country, light.
When each artist had performed three songs, the party shifted to a massive bonfire in the field, where the more daring souls braved singed eyebrows and extremities in order to roast a marshmallow for s’mores. Then, like summer campers heading back to their bunks, the partygoers made their way down the winding path back to the busses.
Sunday morning began much like Saturday morning—with worship. In addition to son-in-law Jack Mooring, Michael was joined on stage by his daughter, Whitney, and three-year-old grandson, Smith, who told the crowd at the beginning of the session, “I’m a worship leader!” Whitney, Michael and Jack took turns leading songs before a closing devotional word from Jack.
The Smitty Weekenders ended their time with both a sense of sadness at leaving their most favorite artist, and anticipation at the 2014 Alaska cruise he’s doing with Darlene Zschech and Phillips, Craig & Dean.
“I was asked in an interview why I do this,” he told the crowd in his parting remarks (referencing our exclusive chat with him). “The reason’s because I love you guys! Together, we’ve become a church!”