How the highly acclaimed Christian recording artist, Michael W. Smith overcame the odds of alcohol and drug abuse and broke into the secular music market with his classic 1990 pop album: Go West Young Man.
“I had a near drug overdose in 1978 and I almost lost my life. And that’s when I thought, oh my gosh, Lord do whatever you have to do to get my attention: car wreck, break my leg, just don’t kill me.” ~ Michael W Smith speaking on TBN chat show Praise (2021)
Michael Whitaker Smith was born in 1957 and raised in Kenova, West Virginia, a small town on the east coast of the United States. While growing up in a devout Christian household, Smith displayed an innate talent for music, and at the age of 6, surprised his parents by playing The Beatles song “Hey Jude” on the piano after hearing it on the radio. Seeing their son’s burgeoning talent for music, Smith’s parents sent Smith for piano lessons, but instead of learning to play from reading the sheet music, Smith relied on his highly developed ear to play the songs and was later found out by his piano teacher and asked to leave.
At the age of 10, Smith accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, and three years later, after being caught up in the Jesus Movement that swept across America in the early 1970s, Smith had his first encounter with the Holy Spirit. As a fervent young believer, Smith would be seen walking around his small home town with a large cross around his neck, carrying a leather Scofield Bible; at night he would attend numerous Bible study classes at his local church. But as he grew into his teens, Smith found himself drifting from his faith when the older group of Christian believers he had befriended began to leave the area, and feeling abandoned, Smith drifted into recreational drug and alcohol use to ease his loneliness.
While still developing his playing and songwriting skills, Smith completed high school and attended the nearby Marshall University but dropped out after one semester. During his brief time of study, Smith was active in numerous secular bands playing in bars. After receiving encouragement from a fellow musician, he later moved to the country music capital of Nashville to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician. All this time, his parents prayed and believed for him to turn back to Christ.
Immersed in the Nashville music scene, playing in bar bands at night while moonlighting as a landscaper to help pay his bills, Smith developed a substance abuse problem that almost ended his life. After suffering a near nervous breakdown, he had a powerful encounter with God that completely changed his life.
“One night in November 1979, the God of the universe came down and laid down with me on my kitchen floor as I shook and convulsed, and I wept and I wept and I wept for three hours and I haven’t really been the same since then,” he said in a testimony he gave to Compassion International, a child-aid programme he has supported since 2004.
A NEW CREATION
Recommitting his life back to God, Smith desperately wanted to escape the secular music scene that had nearly taken him out. Praying and seeking God for direction, a door of opportunity was opened for him 24 hours later, and he auditioned and became a member of the new CCM group, Higher Ground. Touring with the band for eight months, playing at Assembly of God churches across America, where Spirit-led girls would perform cartwheels in front of his keyboard and congregation members would be seen running along the church aisles, Higher Ground and the tour nurtured Smith back to spiritual health.
In 1981, with the tour completed, Smith was hired for his dream job as a professional songwriter by the gospel music publishing giant Meadowgreen Music. Writing up to 14 hours a day and composing 103 songs during this period, Smith’s songs were used by Amy Grant, Bill Gaither and Sandi Patti and many became gospel hits. Thanks to her association with Smith’s work, Grant hired Smith to be her keyboardist on her Age To Age tour and this proved to be a turning point in Smith’s career.
With a growing body of successful songwriting credits behind him, Smith pitched the idea of recording his own music to the newly formed Reunion Records label. The label signed him on, and in 1983, he released his first album, The Michael W Smith Project. Co-written with his wife, Deborah D Smith, the album became a hit and rose to number 9 on the Billboard US Christian Albums charts, eventually going gold. Featuring the now-classic song “Friends”—a duet with Amy Grant—the song became a fan favourite on tour as Smith became the opening act for Grant at her concerts.
Leaning heavily on his keyboard driven pop sound, the album also features numerous instrument tracks showing off Smith’s compositional talents. On the strength and success of his debut album, Smith went on to release Michael W Smith 2 (1984), before moving away from his signature sound to a more rock oriented style with The Big Picture (1986) and the gold album certified album I 2 Eye (1989).
Though riding high on the heightened exposure he had gained from opening for Amy Grant on her Lead Me On tour in 1989, Smith became increasingly frustrated in not being able to break into the secular music scene and this spurred him to radically change both his music and his image on his 1990 release, Go West Young Man.
A CHANGE IN SOUND BUT NOT IN MESSAGE
With its identifiable break from Smith’s previous musical trajectory, Go West Young Man was a calculated shot by the artist and his record label at moving Smith into the rarified world of highly polished and slickly produced contemporary pop music. With the album cover featuring a doe-eyed looking Smith with hat in hand, sporting a new coiffure with highlights, and wearing a vivid purple jacket, Smith’s monumental stylistic transformation from opening act musician to pop star was obvious and intentional and thankfully, owing to the musician’s natural good looks, something he pulled off with aplomb.
With Smith co-producing the album and with most songs co-written with his longtime writing partner Wayne Kirkpatrick (Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, Amy Grant), famed Grammy award-winning engineer Humberto Gatica (Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner) was brought in to mix the album and give it the appropriate pop sheen and this was aptly displayed in the album’s opening track, the effervescent synth-driven, “Go West Young Man”.
In this uptempo track, we see that Smith changed his sound but not his Christian message as he sang about how the believer avoids the temptations of the world by hearing and heeding the voice of God. Arranged into a chart-friendly package, featuring all the trademarks of Smith’s keyboard playing, the track remains a wonderful reminder of the power of uplifting pure hearted pop music.
I’m blazing a trail that leads to vice
So easily enticed
By darker means
When out of the wilderness of choice
I hear that one still voice
Call to me
With Smith’s pop intentions firmly established, the power ballad “Place In This World” was a shining example of an artist finding a sweet spot for his talents. While he is not noted for having a strong singing voice, this song, more than any other on the album, showed us that Smith’s talents lie in his songwriting and compositional ability. Co-written with Wayne Kirkpatrick and Amy Grant, this inspirational single about how we can find our place in this world if we look to God, won Smith the mainstream success he was looking for.
Peaking at Number 6 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts, it featured a wonderful guitar solo from the legendary session musician Dan Huff, and was amply backed by a majestic arrangement of horns and strings. The song went onto be Smith’s highest charting single of his long career and won him Song Of The Year in the 1992 GMA Dove Awards.
Not a lot to lean on
I need your light to help me find
My place in this world
My place in this world
Though outshadowed by the chart success of Place In This World, the confessional song “Cross My Heart“, stands out as the highlight track on the Go West Young Man album. With its deep and lush keyboard arrangements and ethereal multi-tracked backing vocals, Smith’s tender ballad on sharing your heart with God is truly moving, while not lost in over-sentimentality.
Cross my heart, only Your love will do
Cross my heart over You
I will cross my heart, there is room enough for two
Cross my heart your You
Nearing the end of the album, the worship song “Agnus Dei“, fortuitously gives us a foretaste of the Christian worship music that Smith would later release in the following decade. With its song title meaning a liturgical prayer addressed to Jesus Christ, the song features the renowned American Boychoir based out of Princeton, New Jersey, and the anthemic track is one that has been closely associated with Smith his entire career. Re-recorded and re-imagined on subsequent Smith releases, the song would be re-interpreted by an extensive list of Christian recording artists (Third Day, Amy Grant, Hillsong United, Jesus Culture, Darlene Zschech) over the next 30 years after its release.
You are holy…
Are you Lord God Almighty?
Worthy is the Lamb
Worthy is the Lamb
Go West Young Man became an enormous success for Smith, reaching platinum status. It set him up on an incredible run during which every one of his albums released in the 1990s—Change Your World (1992), I’ll Lead You Home (1995), Live The Life (1998), Christmastime (1998), This Is Your Time (1999)—went on to be certified either gold or platinum in the United States.
In 2001, Smith released his first contemporary live Christian worship album Worship, and it went on to be the biggest selling album of his career. Double platinum in the United States and gold in Canada, the album featured Smith covering such notable songs as “The Heart Of Worship”, “Open The Eyes Of My Heart” and “Let It Rain”.
THE FAVOUR OF GOD
Successfully eschewing the trappings of fame and fortune, and continually fervent in his Christian faith, the now 64-year-old Smith attributes his longevity in the music industry to God’s favour over his life. In an interview with Praise on TBN in 2021, he spoke about the honour and responsibility of the celebrity platform God has given him.
‘You can do one thing with the platform: you either become a rock star or you give your life away. You’ve got this platform and you have this amazing opportunity to change the world,” he said.
Practicing what he preaches, Smith’s life work has been more than the chart and album sales success that he is known for as he leverages his celebrity status to highlight the plight of those less fortunate in the world. Teaming up with U2 frontman Bono, Smith is involved in One Campaign, an advocacy group that fights against extreme poverty around the world. He is also a spokesman for Compassion International, an American child sponsorship and Christian humanitarian aid organisation. Closer to home, he has also set up a giant youth centre called Rocketown, in Nashville, Tennessee where teens can spend their recreational time in an alcohol and drug free environment.
Using his platform further, Smith became close and personal friends with the 41st president of the United States, George HW Bush and his son, the 43rd President, George W Bush, with Smith later becoming the vice chair of the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, an organisation promoting volunteerism in civil activities.
Currently touring America with Jon Reddick in The Waymaker Tour, Michael W Smith considered an elder statesman of the Christian music industry, with three Grammys and 40 Dove Awards to his credit. His life and career stand as a testimony of all that can happen when one firmly places their feet on God’s path. With 24 studio albums into a career that spans nearly four decades, that platform is where he will be standing for many albums more.