For many people Michael W. Smith’s Christmas music has long provided the soundtrack for the holiday season. During his storied career the music icon has always had a special relationship with Christmas and his three previous holiday collections are among the best-selling and most-beloved projects in his extensive repertoire. This year there’s a whole new reason to celebrate as the three-time Grammy winner serves up Michael W. Smith & Friends: The Spirit of Christmas, featuring Vince Gill, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, Amy Grant, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Nettles, a very special spoken word contribution from Bono, and Michael McDonald.
“I’m blessed beyond belief,” Smith says with a big smile. “Collaboration can be a beautiful thing. And this has been truly beautiful.”
The spark for The Spirit of Christmas was ignited in November 2013 when Smith performed “Christmas Day” with Jennifer Nettles on CMA’s Country Christmas, a Nashville concert that airs as a television special on ABC. Smith is the first Christian recording artist to perform on the annual country spectacular. “Jennifer had grown up listening to ‘Friends,’” Smith says referencing his classic hit. “Singing with her on the Christmas special was such a great moment.”
Following the taping, Robert Deaton, who produces both the CMA Awards and CMA’s Country Christmas, came to Smith with an idea for a new Christmas album. After three Christmas collections- --1989’s Michael W. Smith Christmas, 1998’s Christmastime and 2007’s It’s a Wonderful Christmas---he was a little unsure about recording another seasonal album, but Deaton’s concept quickly changed his mind.
“It was like he was pitching me a TV special,” Smith grins. “The concept for the album is almost like a movie. Everybody starts out feeling good. They’re shopping and getting ready for the holidays and
then we’re going to turn a corner and reveal what Christmas is all about. Then there’s a third part to it: What has this child done to truly change our lives? So there’s an arc. It was really brilliant. Basically the record was sequenced before we ever got one song. And that’s never happened ever in my career. It’s almost like it’s a movie.”
“We both love The Carpenter’s Christmas record,” Deaton adds. “I love all the instrumental pieces and how it would weave from one song to the next. It told a story musically. And Michael, with his background and who he is as an artist is perfect for that because he could do everything from the orchestral pieces to the songs. So I started thinking about an arc of an idea that basically follows the way you feel during the holidays. You start the season with all of this joy and anticipation. The kids are thinking about Santa Claus. You are euphoric, remininiscing about Christmases past and excited about the one in front of you. Then once it all settles down, you think, ‘Okay. What’s the reason for this season?’ So that’s how we wanted to pattern this record. It starts with these fun classics and it’s followed by an obvious transition when we’re talking about the real heart and the reason for the season. Jesus is that reason and that encompasses a whole section of the record. Finally, we add a last movement that is intended to describe ‘What’s the result of all that?’ We finish with a song that I just love dearly called ‘Peace,’ written by Michael McDonald and Beth Nielsen Chapman. It says, ‘I’ve made so many mistakes, but because He came, I can have peace.’ I played it for Michael and he just fell in love with it too.”
“I love the brevity of it,” Smith adds. “I love that it’s right to the point. When I sing it, I really mean what I’m singing, because it’s a prayer. It’s brutally honest. ‘In You I find my peace’ is the last line.”
Smith, Deaton and Smith’s longtime collaborator/orchestrator David Hamilton co-produced the album. Deaton has produced numerous TV shows and music videos (including McBride’s CMA Award-winning clip “Independence Day”) but The Spirit of Christmas marks his first time producing an album. The tracks were recorded in London with the London Sessions Orchestra. “We recorded at AIR Studios in London where I did my most recent instrumental album, Glory. It was magnificent! Just incredible!”
Every artist they approached to participate enthusiastically said, “Yes,” Deaton says of the people involved. “We wanted artists – real artists – because Michael is an artist in every sense of the word from his writing to his singing. There’s a difference between a singer and an artist. There’s also a difference between a celebrity and an artist. So we didn’t start with a broad number of people. Because once you think, ‘Okay, well who is it that can be on this kind of record with him?’ Then all of a sudden, it gets real narrow. Everyone came in with passion for it. Then their passion and involvement was doubled once they heard the tracks. Once they heard the music, they were like ‘Oh, we can’t thank you enough for letting us be on this record!’”
Smith was excited about collaborating with some of his country music friends but admits to being a little intimidated too. “It was actually a little nerve-wracking for me, singing with Vince Gill on ‘Christmastime is Here.’ We’ve been friends for a long time. But you know, I’m singing with Vince Gill!” he says with a laugh. “I kept saying ‘I want to do my vocal later.’ But I just hopped in there and went for it. He was in the booth right beside me and we were just playing off each other. It was cool.”
Carrie Underwood joins Smith on a pivotal song on the album “All is Well.” “Carrie was great. Nothing against anyone else but I mean you sit there and you think ‘Well I’m not really sure how to instruct her.’ Usually, as a producer, you say, ‘Can we try a little something of this?’ or ‘Sing this a little differently’ but she sang it through one time and we kind of all looked at each other like ‘Alright!!!’”
Among the album’s many highlights is Smith’s collaboration with Little Big Town on “Silent Night.” “I thought, ‘There’s no one that can do that but Little Big Town.’ Kimberly’s voice is beautiful. She’s an angel,” Deaton says of LBT member Kimberly Schlapman.
The Spirit of Christmas also includes such beloved classics as “It’s the Most Wonderful time of the Year” and “Happy Holidays,” which Smith describes as “Smitty meets Michael Bublé.” Lady Antebellum joins Smith for a jazzy version of “White Christmas.” Smith’s seven-year-old granddaughter, Audrey, makes her recording debut on “Somewhere in My Memory,” which was originally featured in the film Home Alone.
The Spirit of Christmas also finds Smith reuniting with longtime friend Amy Grant on “Almost There,” a powerful song penned by Smith, Grant and Wes King that ponders Mary’s thoughts those long miles into Bethlehem. “We knew we needed something really special because of the friendship that Amy and I have,” says Smith. “Wes had this idea: ‘What about Mary while she’s on that donkey and she’s pregnant and they can’t find a place to stay. Are we almost there? She had to wonder that at least once'. The song also represents the anticipation of the entire world, waiting on the arrival of Jesus. It's a powerful thought and moment on the record. I put together the medley, while Wes and Amy came up with the lyrics. It all just worked.”
Few people can contact U2’s lead vocalist Bono directly, much less have him appear on their record, but it’s obvious Smith has deep relationships across the industry, and the love and respect of fellow artists all over the globe. Bono contributes the spoken word section leading into the final song “Peace.” Michael McDonald joins Smith on the song, in what Smith confesses was a bucket list moment for him. “I get chills listening to Michael McDonald sing harmony with me,” he smiles.
The Spirit of Christmas follows in the tradition of musical excellence established by Michael W. Smith on his three previous holiday albums and throughout his entire body of work. “It’s not a duets record. It’s a Michael W. Smith record. It definitely feels that way,” Deaton says.
In listening, it’s obvious it was a labor of love for Smith, who will be sharing these songs on a new Christmas tour this winter. (His pal Amy Grant will be joining Smith on select dates.) “What is it about Christmas songs that they are just a part of a fabric of your childhood and your life?” Smith asks. “When I hear these songs I think about growing up in West Virginia, the Christmas tree, my mom, dad and friends, and my mom cooking for them. There are certain songs that somehow stay glued to you and just remind you of the Christmas. There’s something that’s still fun about singing these songs with family and friends during the holiday, just brings back so many amazing memories”
And the fact that he’s joined on The Spirit of Christmas by some old friends and a few new ones makes the whole project a Christmas to remember.