Michael W. Smith knows how to make the most of his time.

The 38-year old Contemporary Christian and pop artist not only writes and records music, but also is the father of five children ages three to 12, oversees his own teen nightclub, upkeeps a 200-acre farm, is kicking off his biggest tour ever and, with a cellular phone, manages to tell reporters of his busy schedule.

“Oh gosh, it’s just kind of nuts. I’m just trying to get out of here and get to Tupelo tomorrow and see if we can get this show under way,” he said into a static car phone while buzzing through traffic in Nashville Monday.

Saturday night’s concert at the Tupelo Coliseum marks the take-off for Smith’s 1996 “I’ll Lead You Home Tour.” Smith and his crew arrived in Tupelo around midday Tuesday to prepare for the opening night.

“The way things are these days for us to do full production rehearsals where you’ve got video and you’ve got everything to set up, you really need at least a week or two to set up, and it’s really hard to find a coliseum with basketball games and hockey and that sort of thing,” Smith said. “I’ve heard great things [about the Tupelo Coliseum]. Isn’t that a new coliseum?” he asks.

Just a little over two years old, a tour rehearsal is not new to the facility. Last January, Alan Jackson used the building to give his 1995 tour a trial run. Mike Marion, Tupelo Coliseum director, said Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant share the same manager who liked what he saw when she performed at the Coliseum last August.

“When word gets around you’re a good place to rehearse, it kind of feeds on itself,” Marion added. “It’s a great way to keep days busy in the building.”

Busy indeed. With a 60-foot video screen, a runway, computerized lights, and two stages, one of which will sit in the middle of the arena, coliseum workers as well as Smith’s crew have been working around the clock to produce a successful show.

“It’s pretty jammin’,” Smith says. “I think we’re setting a precedent here. We’re doing stuff I don’t think has ever been done.”

Contemporary Christian or pop?

Setting precedents is nothing new to Smith who joins the ranks of few entertainers who have succeeded in two markets. Smith, who has received numerous accolades for his Contemporary Christian songs since his 1983 debut, had his first bonafide pop hit with “Place in This World” off his “Go West Young Man” album. The single peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100, No. 5 on Radio and Record’s Chart and broke the top five on national adult contemporary charts. The album went gold and earned Smith his fifth Grammy nomination for Best Pop Gospel Album. His next album “Change Your World” produced the No. 1 adult contemporary hit and top 15 chart hit, “I Will Be Here For You.”

“I don’t necessarily think I was trying to cross over,” Smith says. “The Go West Young Man’ record, I felt like there were several songs on there that had great potential of crossing over onto the pop chart.”

Geffen records thought so, too. With an agreement from Smith’s Reunion Records, the record company released the album into the mainstream market. “Here I was on Geffen … Here was Michael W. Smith and Guns and Roses. That’s a combination for you,” he laughingly says.

But when it comes down to it, Smith doesn’t like to categorize himself into one genre of music. “I’m not crazy about labels,” he says. “If you listen to the music it’s pop music. I mean I grew up on Elton John and the Beatles, but I’m definitely not ashamed to say I’m from the Contemporary Christian market. I would just rather it not have any labels on it, but you know, it’s a little bit of both.”

Breaking into the pop mainstream gave Smith a chance to expand his audience. “There’s not anything greater marketing wise than having a pop hit. We’ve seen it all happen. Like for instance, Hootie and the Blowfish. You’ve never heard of them, then all of a sudden, they’ve got a few hits and now they’ve sold eight million records. It’s all from just that massive exposure that pop radio gives you.”

While some criticized Smith for abandoning his Contemporary Christian roots or straddling the fence, the singer/songwriter never defended what he did. “I really didn’t defend it much because I didn’t think there was anything to defend. From the very beginning I wanted to be on a pop label and have a positive influence on mainstream music. I just thought my music was radio friendly. I think it’s melodic, I think it’s singable, and I thought this stuff could be on pop radio.”

Best of both worlds

When Smith left his home in Kenova, West Va., for Nashville in 1978 he never imagined he would become one of the leading Contemporary Christian artists.

“I just wanted to do music period. My goal was I wanted to be in pop music but I wanted to share my faith. Faith was the most important thing in my life. I never visioned being on a Christian label,” he said.

In September 1980 Smith got his first songwriting contract making $200 a week. “I was in heaven. I could have died right there,” he recalls. In 1981 he signed with Reunion Records and got married. After touring as a keyboardist and opening act for Amy Grant’s “Age to Age” Tour in 1982, Smith released his debut album, “Michael W. Smith Project” in 1983. The album contained the classic, “Friends,” which became his signature song. “People would come to see my show and that’s the one thing they came to hear more than anything,” he said.

Smith and his wife, Deb, wrote the song for a friend who was leaving town. “She wanted to do something special for him. I said let’s buy him a gift and she said, Well we should write him a song.'” Smith said his wife wanted to write the song immediately so they could sing it for their friend that night at a Bible study.

“I said, You’re crazy. We can’t write a song that fast.’ I blew if off and I went out in the yard and came back in a few minutes later and Deb just handed me this lyric.”

Astounded, Smith went to the piano and within five minutes wrote the melody. The song wasn’t released until over a year later and was almost pitched to Grant.

“I didn’t really realize what I had,” Smith said. “It’s one of those kinds of songs you’ve got to sing the rest of your life, and I really don’t get tired of singing it.”

Being lead home

Smith has found that some of his best songs are the ones that, like “Friends,” are written spur of the moment. “I’ll Lead You Home,” the title track off his 11th album was written in about 10 minutes. “Sometimes when you have to work at it, they just don’t seem to be as good. The ones that really tug at your heart and feel like they’ve really got tons of emotion are the ones that just kind of pull out of you.”

The song came to Smith when he was going through what he calls “a funk.” “I was kind of going through a little bout of depression,” Smith said adding that he felt he just couldn’t deal with everything. Wanting to snap out of it, Smith went to his studio early one Saturday morning to pray.

After an emotional time of pouring out his heart, Smith said he heard God tell him, “Well you’re not supposed to do it. I’m going to take care of you.’ I had read that before, but I forgot it. All of a sudden I got up and thought, Golly man, that makes a lot of sense.'” Smith then got up and wrote the song.

Although that song carries more meaning for Smith, the whole album has been a unique experience for him. “I think it’s a real honest record. There’s just something that was real vulnerable about this record. I wasn’t afraid to talk about hard times. It’s just this place where I just kind of hang loose’, let’s just write from the gut like you’ve never written from the gut before.”

Smith said he is unsure whether the songs off this album will be big pop hits. One of the album’s singles, “Straight To the Heart” landed in the top 25 on Gavin, a music chart publication for radio stations. “That’s fine,” he says. “I think this record probably wasn’t meant to have a whole lot of play on pop radio, but you know, who knows? There might be a smash out there and I don’t even know it.”

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