Singer Michael W. Smith brought the spirit of Christmas to Northern California on Monday and, with it, his extraordinary talent for creating a diversity of music that stirs the soul on differing levels.
Playing at Modesto’s Gallo Center of the Arts, Smith is most known for his Contemporary Christian music in a career that started in 1983. But four Christmas and two instrumental albums later it’s clear that the success this piano man’s talent brings him in Christian music also broadens his scope to perform exceedingly well in other genres, too.
Even Smith himself would concede not to categorize himself as only a Christian music artist.
“To me, it’s all a creative process,” said Smith in an email interview. “Sometimes I get inspired to write and…go into the studio not knowing if I’m going to write a worship song, an instrumental piece or something else. I don’t feel compelled to write for a specific genre. If I did, I think it might take some of the joy away.”
Smith’s Christmas albums are different than most in that they’re not a compilation of songs starring only him. A blend of familiar Christmas fare, moving instrumental pieces, and thoughtfully written lyrics about Christ’s birth are interwoven with stirring vocals of boys choirs and choirs of up to 100-voices. Beautiful orchestral arrangements and piano work by Smith also anchors the albums.
His most recent Christmas album “The Spirit of Christmas” builds on the same sentiment of utilizing the talents of multiple musicians, but with a different take. Nearly a dozen big name stars including Carrie Underwood, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Martina McBride, Lady Antebellum, and even Bono joined Smith for a duet album that, also different than his other albums, follows a sequential storyline.
“The album starts out with the childlike wonder and excitement about Christmas. Later on, it progresses to the reason for Christmas and what our response should be,” explained Smith, adding that the arc concept of the album and the chance to work with so many artists is what made this the most unique and unusual album he’s ever done.
On stage, Smith no less recognized the musicians with him. Among them were David Hamilton, who arranged songs on his instrumental albums “Freedom” and “Glory”, and Rachael Lampa, a Christian music artist who took part in one of the highlights of the show—a powerful delivery of “Almost There” and “All is Well” (sang by Carrie Underwood on the album, as seen also on the CMA Country Christmas Special).
Smith had a personable and relaxed presence on stage, mixed with a little bit of warm Southern charm. He played piano while asking the audience to sing Christmas classics such as Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, and O Holy Night. It felt more like gathering around his piano singing Christmas carols at home than being in a concert.
As for his love for Christmas music, he says it started at a young age.
“I was 9 or 10 years old when I wanted to make my first Christmas album,” Smith told the audience, adding that a favorite was Tony Bennett’s I Love the Winter Weather. “My parents thought I was crazy.”
While no amount of raised eyebrows could stop Smith from pursing music, the impact his parents left on him is evident in the philanthropy efforts he was recently recognized for by the Nashville Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, who named him Philanthropist of the Year. Smith says that recognition was especially meaningful to him because it best represents what he learned from his parents.
“They are two of the kindest and most giving people you could ever meet,” Smith said. “Over the years, I’ve learned that giving yourself away really is what makes you the happiest. A Gold or a Platinum record is nice, a Grammy Award is really cool, but those things don’t have a lasting impact like when you invest yourself into someone else’s life.”
Smith concluded the concert with a fun and fast-paced rendition of “Gloria” and an encore singing of “Happiest Christmas” and his famous “Friends”.
The warm-and-fuzzy “Happiest Christmas” was a perfect song to end the concert. It even persuaded me to put down my camera so I could simply enjoy the moment. And in a lot of ways that’s what Christmas is all about: enjoying the moment, everyone with their own definition of what makes that moment special, whether it be the gifts or the lights of the season, time with family, or something deeper and more spiritual.
For Smith, Christmas is about all those things. After releasing three (yes, three!) albums this year and touring extensively, he says he particularly looks forward to spending time with his family this Christmas.
“I plan on relaxing as much as possible with five grown kids, their spouses and our 10 grandchildren!” Smith said. “It’s always such a blessing to be home with family.”
Photos by Bethany Harris