Songs of Experience
Christian singer looks at life's troubles and offers inspired work
By Michael McCall
NOVEMBER 29, 1999: On April 25, millions of Americans watched Michael W. Smith cross a public stage in Littleton, Colo., and sit solemnly at a grand piano to play his most famous song, "Friends." Smith had performed the touching ballad thousands of times since it became his first hit in 1983. Still, he was trembling visibly as he prepared to play. It wasn't so much the enormous crowd of more than 20,000; it wasn't even the television camera or the high-ranking politicians and public figures sitting across the stage with him. Instead, it was the parents of the slain teens who stood in a private area offstage--it was the weight of it all.
"I tried to stay focused, but it was tough," Smith says. "I thought I would just close my eyes all the way through the whole thing. But I made a mistake by opening them up toward the end of the song."
When he did, his gaze fell upon Brad and Misty Bernall, the parents of Cassie Bernall, the 17-year-old Columbine student who'd been murdered while she kneeled and prayed in the school library. As has been widely reported, other students overheard one of the gunmen ask if she believed in God. When she said yes, the killer asked "Why?" and then shot her before she answered.
Smith had met the Bernalls prior to the service. "It was one of the most emotional days of my life," says Smith, who had been invited to attend the memorial along with his longtime friend, Amy Grant. "But meeting Cassie's mom and dad and her little brother Chris--if there was anything 'up' at all about that day, it was getting to meet them. I knew I was going to meet them, and I wanted to be strong. But that's when I broke down; I just collapsed. It was so strange that [Misty Bernall] ended up being the one comforting me. You can't even fathom what she must've been going through; this mother just lost her girl. But she seemed to have a peace about her that was really overwhelming."
Onstage, Smith started to crack again, fighting back tears as his voice broke during the final lines of his familiar song. "I came home, and I couldn't get Cassie off of my mind," he says. "I was a basket case. I would lay awake at night, and I would think about Cassie. So I started to write a song for her."
That song, the moving "This Is Your Time," is the title track of Smith's 13th album, released Nov. 23 through a joint partnership of Reunion and Jive Records. Co-written with fellow Christian rocker Wes King, "This Is Your Time" never mentions Bernall by name. Instead, Smith sings of a young woman who had the courage to stand for her convictions. As the song grows increasingly uplifting and symphonic, he encourages listeners to show similar courage, to "live every moment, leave nothing to chance, for this is your time."
As Smith explains, "Basically, the song turns it around and asks, 'What would you have done?' Ultimately, it asks if you're walking with God. But I think people will also take away that it's about being a better person--a better husband, a better father, a better mom. This is your time. Do the best that you can."
For Smith, his experience with the Bernalls and with the Littleton memorial left him newly inspired. "The whole Columbine thing really set this album in motion," he says. "Before then, nothing had really taken form. I had been in a little bit of a funk. It was my 13th record, and I was tired. I wanted to do something different. I'm 42, and I had started to look at things differently. You start to realize what's really important, like your family and raising kids. The 100-cities-a-year touring is over for me."
Because of this shift in priorities, Smith had a hard time getting excited about making another album. He'd achieved most of his goals: He's one of the biggest Christian music stars of the last two decades; he's won 22 Dove Awards, including 1998's Artist of the Year and Producer of the Year. He's also achieved pop success, garnering several crossover hits and two Grammy Awards in the past decade.
However, his 1998 album, Live the Life, failed to build on the commercial momentum he'd built up in the past 10 years. Just as significantly, his creative drive seemed to dim a bit as well. But his visit to Littleton earlier this year crystallized his connection to music and to his audience. "I came back from there and knew that I was inspired to make this album," he says.
Not everything on This Is Your Time is as spiritual or as emotional as the title song. The lyrics are almost as diverse as the musical influences, which embrace hard rock, hip-hop, Celtic music, symphonic flourishes, and simple piano-and-acoustic guitar passages. Nonetheless, a thread exists, much of it dealing with personal morals and the value of relationships--whether they be with God, with family, or with friends.
Smith speaks often of his family and of his role as a father and a husband. He wrote one of his new songs for his 13-year-old daughter Whitney, with whom he says he has a great relationship, even as she enters a period in her life that he knows will be difficult. He wrote another song for his 9-year-old, Anna.
"She Walks With Me," which Smith wrote for his 13-year-old, marries a slightly tense rhythm pattern with a sunny chord structure as it talks about a young woman who "dances on the wind" and is anxious to start her own life. Her father worries that she's growing up too fast, and he knows she'll face some difficulty. Then the song comes together on a chorus that tells of how they walk and talk together, and how that bond gives them both strength as they move ahead.
By acknowledging that problems are likely to arise both in his daughter's life and in his relationship with her, Smith shows why he garners the kind of respect few other Christian-identified songwriters attain. On This Is Your Time, he delves into other prickly relationships as well, including songs that deal with friends struggling through divorces and other life-changing problems. Though Smith avoids speaking in specifics, the singer implies that a couple of new songs are about the highly public breakup of Amy Grant and Gary Chapman.
"There were some friends of mine--not just one, but several--who were really having a hard time," he says. "I won't mention any names, but you can probably figure it out. Marriages were falling apart, and the people were just reeling. People that I thought had really great integrity just lost it. Some of them had been deceived. It was a really tough time."
The songs "I Will Be Your Friend" and "I Will Carry You" speak to these issues, Smith says. "They say that no matter what happens, I will be your friend. I will stand in the gap. I will not turn my back on you. Whether the decision you made is right or wrong or whatever, I'll be there.... I'm not going to walk out when it gets tough."
Not walking away, not giving up, not forgoing faith: Those are the messages that run through This Is Your Time. In a way, Smith drew on those themes to get through his own creative crisis. The result is music that will help others find strength and faith as well.
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