Music is his calling

Michael W. Smith joins Jason Castro, and Francesca Battistelli and the Groovaloos at the second Cantinas Music Festival in Paso Robles on Saturday

slinn@thetribunenews.comAugust 21, 2013 

If Amy Grant is the queen of contemporary Christian pop, Michael W. Smith is undoubtedly its king.

His accomplishments include three Grammy Awards, 40 Dove Awards and a handful of platinum-selling pop and worship albums.

Speaking from his home in Franklin, Tenn., just south of Nashville, Smith, 55, said his faith is “really why I do what I do.”

“It’s a calling,” he added. “I love it and I don’t take it lightly.”

On Saturday, Smith performs at the second Cantinas Music Festival at the Paso Robles Event Center in Paso Robles.

Sponsored by the Cantinas Ranch Foundation of Malibu, the faith-based festival also features performances by Grammy-nominated singer- songwriter Francesca Battistelli, “American Idol” finalist Jason Castro and the Groovaloos hip-hop dance crew.

In addition to the headlining acts, which take the stage starting at 6 p.m., the Cantinas Village Festival, open from noon to 8 p.m., offers music and dance performances, skateboarding demonstrations, the Worship Song Talent Contest and other family-friendly activities. Festival-goers who stick around an extra day are invited to attend a free, nondenominational service at 11 a.m. Sunday.

The pivotal moment

Born and raised in West Virginia, Smith remembers writing his first song when he was 5 and performing for his mom and dad.

“Their jaws just dropped,” recalled Smith, who followed up that feat by learning and playing The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” entirely by ear.

At age 15 came the “pivotal moment” when Smith realized, “ ‘Oh my God, this is what I’m supposed to do. This is my sweet spot,’ ” he recalled.

After attending West Virginia’s Marshall University for one semester, Smith dropped out and moved to Nashville to pursue a career as a songwriter. There, he spent time “waiting tables, landscaping (and) eating baloney sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner” before landing his first songwriting job.

It was while penning songs for the likes of Bill Gaither, Sandi Patty and Kathy Troccoli that Smith met his wife, Deborah Kay Davis, and his future collaborator, Christian music star Amy Grant.

“She kind of gave me my first break,” said the songwriter, who worked as Grant’s keyboard player, music director and opening act before launching his own pop career.

Grant’s managers were so determined to land Smith a recording contract that they started their own record label, Reunion Records. (In July, Smith left that label, now part of Provident Music Group, to join Capitol Christian Music Group.)

His debut album “The Michael W. Smith Project,” which featured music by Smith and lyrics by his wife, came out in 1983. Smith earned his first Grammy Award the following year for 1984’s “Michael W. Smith 2,” paving the way for more than 20 subsequent albums and more than a dozen books.

“A lot of people do records and they have their hits and they fade away,” Smith said, but he’s enjoyed “kind of a sustained career.”

Although the singer-songwriter admits he’s made mistakes along the way — such as “trying to be a people pleaser and worrying how to get No. 1 (songs)” — he has reached a point where, he said, “I don’t think about what people think about me anymore. It’s very freeing.”

“If I get another Grammy, great. If not, I’m not worried,” Smith said. “I’m very much at peace. I’m in a good spot, and I say that with all humility.”

Branching out

That sense of fulfillment has given Smith the freedom to branch out in unexpected directions — such as launching a record label, starting a Nashville youth ministry and founding a church, Franklin’s New River Fellowship. He even tried his hand at acting in the 2006 drama “The Second Chance.”

Smith made two sweeping, symphonic instrumental albums inspired by movie soundtracks, 2000’s “Freedom” and 2011’s “Glory.”

“John Williams is my hero. … I can hum you almost every melody he wrote,” said Smith, a classical music fan who started writing themes for films after seeing “Star Wars.” He admires Williams’ scores so much, in fact, that he saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” 28 times in the first three weeks when it played in theaters.

Smith’s new as-yet- untitled album, due out in April, finds the singer-songwriter pursuing what he described as a “European, Coldplay vibe” with progressive pop sensibilities.

“I’m reinventing myself again after 30 years,” Smith explained, with the help of a few young, passionate producers. “I’m taking a lot of risks. … I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone a little bit.”

IF YOU GO

Cantinas Music Festival
Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday
Paso Robles Event Center, 2198 Riverside Ave., Paso Robles
$35, $17.50 ages 12 and under, $100 premiere seating
310-774-5320 or www.cantinasmusicfestival.com

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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