NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It was a dark time for Michael W. Smith.
"I was young and I thought I could play with the fire and not get burned," he said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News. "I got selfish and I got deceived."
It was November 1979, and the person who would become one of Christian music's icons was a desperate 22-year-old lying on the floor of his kitchen in Nashville, broken from substance abuse and a life that was going nowhere. "It was crazy," he said.
His parents knew what he had become and prayed for him every day. And on that floor, their son lying in convulsions, their prayers were answered.
"I just really felt that God just came down and laid on the floor with me," Smith said. "And I have really not been the same since that night. I have really not been the same."
From that place at the bottom, Michael W. Smith — or "Smitty," as his friends call him — began a new life's journey touched by love and success. Over the past three decades, that success has led to three Grammy Awards (out of 13 nominations), 44 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, 33 No. 1 radio hits, 15 million album sales and a fan base that spans the world.
His path to prominence began with playing keyboard and writing songs for Christian singer-songwriter Amy Grant.
Then one day a friend of his, Bill Jackson, was moving to another state. Jackson was part of a Bible study group with Smith, and that night was the last time they would all get together before he moved away. Smith's wife, Debbie, told him, "Hey, you know what, we should write him a song."
"That's great," he told her. "We'll write him a song and send it to him."
"What if we wrote it today?"
Smith blew it off, thinking, "You know, I just don't think that's possible."
Less than half an hour later, she came out to where Smith was playing in the backyard and handed him the lyrics she had just written.
"And I just looked at it and thought, 'Wow!' " he said. "And literally, we both walked into the house, and I sat down at the piano, and I started just writing the music. And I wrote the music, and there it was, in three minutes, I mean I had it. It was just one of those things where we looked at each other and went, 'Wow!' "
He sang it that evening for his friend, and its impact was profound.
"And friends are friends forever
If the Lord's the Lord of them
And a friend will not say never
'Cause the welcome will not end
Though it's hard to let you go
In the Father's hands we know
That a lifetime's not too long to live as friends."
He mentioned the song later in an elevator to his manager: "You know, I think Amy could cut this song and knock it out of the park."
"You know what?" his manager replied. "YOU need to cut this song." And he did, debuting the song "Friends" in 1983 on his first album, "The Michael W. Smith Project."
Thirty years later he is still singing it. He has sung it at concerts, funerals and a memorial service for the survivors of the Columbine High School tragedy. "I didn't think I would have to sing it the rest of my life, but I am," he said. "It just connects people. It really does. And I see it every night. I look out into the audience, I'm singing it and somebody is crying over to the right. And I've got three people over here holding each other. It's crazy."
What is also crazy is having a career in the music business that spans three decades. "I feel so blessed," he said. "Usually the older generation guys move on out and the younger people come in. I feel like it is one of my responsibilities to pour my life into this next generation of musicians."
But even with the success, Smith doesn't feel famous. "I honestly just feel pretty normal," he said. "I don't rest my whole life on the whole fame thing, because you know what, it doesn't bring any peace. If you live in that world, it's all about being successful. If you sell 5 million records, then you have to sell 10. Then you have to sell 15, and you always have to stay on top and trying to impress everybody. It's just a dead-end street."
Instead, Smith finds happiness in how his music changes people. "That brings great joy to me," he said. "It is why I do this music thing, that I'll have some sort of lasting impact on somebody's life."
He also tries to go beyond music in impacting others. He has been involved with the charity Compassion International and worked with U2's Bono on an AIDS initiative in Africa. He also has a soft spot for the military.
"Even as a kid, I would just get emotional seeing somebody in a uniform and knowing the sacrifices these men and women have made," he said.
That patriotic support for the military is the reason he is performing a concert at the Draper Amphitheater on Tuesday. The concert is part of Smith's "The Wonder, Worship & Glory" tour arranged by Warrior Worship, an organization focusing on the challenges and spiritual needs of wounded veterans.
Smith also hasn't forgotten the challenges he faced as a youth and began a youth outreach club in Nashville called Rocketown. (Online at www.rcktwn.com/ )
He remembers how his parents' love reached him, and tries to reach out to other young people in need.
"When I have a chance … I just tell them my story," he said. "I tell them there really is good and evil. There really is somebody who is trying to take them down every day."
He tells them about lying on a kitchen floor and feeling the love of God. It is a love expressed in the lyrics of another song he wrote, "Never Been Unloved":
"I have been unfaithful
I have been unworthy
I have been unrighteous
And I have been unmerciful …
But because of You
And all that you went through
I know that I have never been unloved."1 comment on this story
And it is this love and the friendship of God, Smith said, that gives him greater joy than anything else in the world. "I'm a big proponent about teaching about grace and singing about the grace of God," he said. "There are just a lot of people — I know, because I've met them, not only in America but around the world — who still cannot quite grasp that God not only loves them, but just actually really likes them and is fond of them and he just wants to be their daddy."
If you go …
What: An Evening With Michael W. Smith
Where: Draper Amphitheater, 944 E. Vestry Road
When: Tuesday, July 24, 7:30pm
How much: $20-$65