To Michael W. Smith, Christmas really is that most wonderful time of the year, and the three-time Grammy winner has parlayed his passion for the season into four successful holiday albums, including his latest, The Spirit of Christmas, which recently hit No. 1 on Billboard's Holiday Albums chart.
"I just love it," Smith says of the Christmas season. "I just love the way it makes me feel. No pun intended, I do think it's the most wonderful time of the year. It's fun and it's family, and when you get to Christmas Eve, you have that candlelight service and you're singing these songs and the whole world is drawn into what this holiday is all about."
The Christian music icon is currently spreading holiday cheer in the midst of a Christmas tour sponsored by Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. It kicked off Nov. 30 in Anaheim, Calif., and winds its way through 14 cities including Dallas (Dec. 12) Atlanta (Dec. 15) and Seattle (Dec. 20) before concluding in Abbotsford, BC, Canada on Dec. 21.
On his new album Smith enlisted some very special guests, including Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Michael McDonald, Martina McBride, Jennifer Nettles, Lady Antebellum and Bono. Smith says the project is the most unique album he's ever done, but admits a little over a year ago he couldn't have seen himself doing another Christmas album.
"People would ask me all the time, 'When are you going to do another Christmas record?' And I'd think, 'Gosh I've done three. I'm not really sure I'm ready to do a fourth one,'" Smith tells Billboard. But he credits Robert Deaton, producer of the annual CMA Awards and CMA's Country Christmas, with changing his mind.
"We were at the Franklin [TN] Theater, hanging out and watching Smokey Joe's Café," Smith recalls of attending the local production in the fall of 2013. "Robert turned to me and said, 'You know I'm getting ready to do a CMA Christmas special. You should come to the show.' And I remember thinking about, and in a humble way not cocky, thinking, 'Why am I not ON the show? Why not live on the edge and bring in somebody who's not country?'"
On the way home, Deaton had the same epiphany---with some prodding from his wife. "Little did I know that on the way home his wife, Susan, was saying, 'You don't need to just invite him to the show – he needs to be ON the show,'" Smith recalls with a laugh.
On last year's CMA Country Christmas, Smith performed "Christmas Day" with Jennifer Nettles, becoming the first Christian music artist to perform on the annual country music television special, which airs on ABC. The duet sparked Deaton to envision an album that would pair Smith with other country stars in a unique concept album. He pitched the idea to Smith and they were off and running.
"The concept of the album is almost like a movie," Smith says. "Robert came over and it took thirty minutes. I felt like he was pitching me a TV special. He had everything from top to bottom. 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 [Jesus] 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. It kind of gives you chill bumps and reminds you of your childhood."
Deaton tapped his extensive list of contacts to enlist some of the top names in country music to duet with Smith. "The hit list was who we got. I mean it really was," Deaton says. "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. The list that we had was the list that we went after. And they all said 'yes!'"
Lady Antebellum joins Smith on "White Christmas." Little Big Town appears on "Silent Night" and Jennifer Nettles on "Christmas Day." Vince Gill appears on "Christmastime is Here." 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. Underwood sings on "All is Well," and she joined Smith to perform the song on this year's CMA Country Christmas, which aired on ABC Dec. 1.
Smith's longtime friend Amy Grant joins him on "Almost There," a song she and Smith co-wrote with Wes King about how Mary must have felt on that long journey to Bethlehem. The album also features Michael McDonald on a song he co-wrote with Beth Nielsen Chapman titled "Peace."
There's a recitation from Bono that began with an email exchange. "I emailed Bono and told him, 'I have a wild idea. I'm doing a Christmas record. Would you be open to reading a poem? Would you read the Christmas story? Or is there an Irish Christmas poem?' I just kind of threw it out there," Smith says. "So he emailed me back saying, 'That sounds interesting. I love it.' My friend, Skip Cleavinger, sent two or three things and one of those things was 'The Darkest Midnight,' which is a song but it's also been quoted as well. Then everything was silent for a month and then Bono came through and sent it when we were right down to the wire. There was something odd but beautiful about it. People are going to be pleasantly surprised."
Smith and Deaton co-produced The Spirit of Christmas with Smith's longtime collaborator/orchestrator David Hamilton. "They had never met," Smith says of Deaton and Hamilton. "We all got together and started to talk and come up with a plan, try to figure out how to squeeze in London in the middle of an already crazy, busy year."
Smith wound up recording in Air Studios in London in June. "It's where I did the Glory record," he says of his 2011 instrumental album. "It was just incredible. We cut with the London Session Orchestra. A lot of soundtracks are recorded in this studio and it's fabulous."
Though Deaton is an award-winning TV producer and director, The Spirit of Christmas marks his first time producing an album. "I love working with talented people," Deaton says. "So I was a little intimidated. He's Michael W. Smith! But when I had a specific reason for being here, then that was gone. I was still in awe, of course, but at least I had something to focus on. The process of working with him has been phenomenal, something I'll always remember. And then working with David Hamilton, who is the resident genius – he is just amazing. That was really great."
Though Smith has recorded three previous Christmas albums, he says The Spirit of Christmas stretched him. "You're hearing me in a way that you've probably never heard me before, especially on 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year' and 'Happy Holidays.' It's like Smitty meets Buble for a few moments," he says. "Then there's my granddaughter on the record singing a song from 'Home Alone,' and then you get the whole symphonic feeling of Christmas, and then all of a sudden there's Little Big Town. There's all these personalities, but it all really holds together."
Deaton agrees. "It all feels like a cohesive piece," he says. "And you never leave the fact that it's a Michael W. Smith record. That was important. I don't feel like this is a duets record, because it's not a duets record. It's a Michael W. Smith record. And so the whole thing feels that way. Then we're fortunate enough to have these amazing guests on the record. Everybody smiles when they hear it."