Michael W. Smith on His First Christian Airplay No. 1, 'Waymaker': 'It's the Right Song for the Time'

Michael W. Smith
Wander Creative

Michael W. Smith

"A song can change someone's life," Smith marvels.

After nearly 40 years on Billboard's charts, Christian music cornerstone Michael W. Smith is still breaking new ground.

On the latest Christian Airplay tally (dated May 16), "Waymaker," featuring Vanessa Campagna, climbs 3-1, marking Smith's first leader on the list, which launched in 2003, around two decades after Smith first began charting entries on Billboard surveys.

"Waymaker" is from Smith's LP Awaken: The Surrounded Experience, which reached No. 13 on Top Christian Albums in March. Smith and Campagna subsequently recorded a four-minute studio version of the song for radio, compared with the album’s seven-minute live version.

Notably, two other versions of "Waymaker" are on the latest Christian Airplay chart, by Leeland and Mandisa. The song was written by Nigerian artist Osinachi Okoro, aka Sinach, who first released her rendition in 2015.

Smith, 62, boasts 16 No. 1s on Top Christian Albums, dating to his first, I 2 (EYE), in 1989, and branched out to pop acclaim in the early '90s, thanks to his No. 6 Billboard Hot 100 hit "Place in This World" in 1991, as well as the top 40 single "I Will Be Here for You" in 1992.

Smith's accomplishments in music have led to extraordinary connections and friendships. He was friends with both Reverend Billy Graham and President George H. W. Bush and performed at their funerals. He has also worked with President George W. Bush and U2's Bono to help eradicate AIDS.

Of late, Smith has been staging livestreams each Saturday from his farm in Franklin, Tenn., just south of Nashville, where he resides with his wife Debbie. They have five children: Whitney, Ryan, Anna, Tyler and Emily.
As he was prepping for this week's performance, Smith took time to chat with Billboard (via Zoom) about "Waymaker," living and working during the coronavirus pandemic and what will follow.

Being a former radio programmer, I know that sometimes the legends can be neglected. How does it strike you seeing this song go to No. 1?
It's great that it went to No. 1, but if it didn't, I'd be totally fine with it. One of the most important things for me is that people are connecting with this song all around the world, and not just by me, but by other artists, as well. I think it's just an important song and I have found myself in this situation before. It's the right song for the time. It seems to be everyone's go-to song and it's helping people get through what's sort of an unprecedented time. So, while it doesn't make me tick to have chart success, I am also very grateful and especially thankful for my team that worked so hard.

Do you pay attention to the charts?
Honestly, I probably should, but I don't really follow the charts. At the same time, I am always very happy for other artists to have hits. I should probably follow it more closely just because lots of my friends, I'll call them kids, are artists having success. I should ask what their secret is [laughs].

How did you find the song “Waymaker?"
This song found me, and it found me through my daughter Anna. It was two years ago and I was working on an event [a free concert in August 2018] at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, where thousands of people come together and we pray over the city. Long story short, Anna was going through a difficult time and she said that she found this song and that it became her go-to song. She played a version that a church somewhere in the U.S. had done and I just remember going "wow." I said we needed to do it at the Bridgestone event, and we did that night. I just knew right away there was something really special about "Waymaker."

How did your shorter studio recording of "Waymaker" originate?
My radio team came to me and suggested that we go into the studio and cut a radio version. I fought it initially; I never really liked writing or recording something specifically for that purpose. It could end up being a disaster. After giving it some thought, I thought maybe I should and initially thought of my background singer Vanessa Campagna and maybe turning it into a duet. It was definitely the right move. She's so terrific, and my producer Kyle Lee knocked it out of the park.

Where did you record the studio single and when?
About six months ago. Kyle did a lot of the mixing in his studio in Texas and Vanessa and I sang our parts in my studio in Franklin. So, we did a little juggling through the Internet that I generally don't like to do, but we felt like time was ticking away and needed to expedite things.

You also did a special version in Italian. Why?
Mainly because of COVID-19 and Italy, in particular, going through such a rough time. Family is such a big part of their culture and so is music. I honestly just woke up one morning and said, "I think we need to do this in Italian."

Did you speak the language previously?
No, just in college when I was a vocal major and that was kind of a disaster [laughs]. I was convinced that I could learn it for the song and then, of course, Vanessa had no problem; her whole family is from Italy. We brought in a friend who speaks Italian to help, because I felt that if we did this, it had to be legit. We're also planning Spanish and Portuguese versions.

How are your livestreams going?
We wanted to do something helpful during the current crisis. We're about to do our ninth. For the first one, I literally had five members of my band at my house, social distancing, of course. We just thought that we're home anyways and we can't do live shows, so let's just bring the music to everyone around the world. The response from the fans has been great; overwhelming, to be honest. They've expressed that the livestreams are really needed.

You have a tour planned for the fall. Are you still hoping it can happen?
Yes. I am not convinced that it can happen yet, but I hope that it can. I feel like we just have to wait and see. If we have to wait until 2021, then that's what we'll do.

As for long before your latest successes, do you look back fondly on your '90s pop hits?
I do, definitely. You know, to me they were more than just pop hits: They were life-changing for so many people, especially "Place in This World." To this day, people tell me how that song saved their life. You know, it just doesn't get any better than that. Those stories are way, way, way better than having a No. 1. I just think it's astonishing how a three-and-a-half-minute song can change someone's life for the better. Pretty incredible.