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Growing up sixty miles from the birthplace of the Ebola virus has infected siblings Todd and Nicol Smith with a fever for missions

by Mike Parker for the Music Channel at

Nicol Smith swore she would never go back on the mission field. Eight years as the child of missionary parents in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was enough.

"She was right up front about it," laughs her younger brother, Todd. "The rest of us kids might have hedged it with, 'Oh, if the Lord leads.' But Nicol was adamant about not going back to Zaire."

"I had no intention of going onto a mission field," Nicol freely admits. "I had had enough of it to last me a lifetime. When I moved to Nashville, I thought I was going to be a star. I was going to get a record deal, and be rich. That was my goal. And I would still love to win a Grammy, and I would love to wear a glittery dress. But I have seen enough of it to know that it is mostly smoke and mirrors. It's fun, and it is a thrill, but after you do it once, you start to wonder, 'Is that all there is to it?' The longer I have been here, the more my heart turns back toward missions."

Nicol did indeed get a record deal, but the "star" part is taking a little longer than she originally planned. Her solo project on the Curb Records label, tentatively scheduled for a June release, has been in the works for nearly four years.

"It has been a lesson in patience," she confesses. "And I don't remember ever asking God to teach me that."

Still, the interim time has not been unprofitable for the siblings. Todd used the time to complete not one, but two bachelors degrees -- a Music Business degree from Nashville's Belmont University, and more recently a BA in Religious Education from William Tyndale College. In his spare time he recorded background vocals for the likes of Pam Tillis, Bob Carlisle, and Carman. Nicol quickly became one of the most sought after session singers in Nashville, providing BGV's for everyone from Amy Grant to Wynonna.

It was while attending Belmont University that Todd met piano virtuoso Alan Hall. Originally there were no thoughts of recording together. It was just two friends hanging out.

"Sometimes when I was stressed out, I would call Todd and ask him to meet me in a practice room," Allan remembers. "I would play some hymns and he would sing. It always helped to clear my head."

Eventually Todd introduced Allan to Nicol and the three friends soon began performing small concerts for churches, singing the hymns they had grown up with. Nicol credits Allan with making Selah a reality.

"Todd and I are more like idea receptacles," she explains. "We come up with all these ideas, but if it is left up to us, they will never get done. Allan is the person who executes those ideas."

"When we are in concert, I really want to connect with the audience," Todd says. "I want there to be genuineness there. I want to be an encouragement -- a reminder of the faithfulness of God. And so many people have responded to the simplicity these songs. One kid came up and said, 'Man, that "It Is Well With My Soul" song. That was great! Did you guys write that?'"

It was after one such concert, with Todd and Nicol accompanied only by Allan on the piano, that the Smith's mother noticed the effect those simple hymns were having on the audience. She encouraged the trio to go into the studio and record the songs, offering to pay for studio time out of her own pocket.

"We did it in a week and thought that is all it would ever be," Nicol confides. "We had no thoughts of a record deal at that time. We were trying to get permission for one of the songs, which happened to belong to Curb. Well, Mike Curb ended up getting a copy of the CD, and after hearing it for the first time he decided to pick it up and release it."

Now with major label backing, the three friends had the opportunity to go back into the studio and make their debut project, ==Be Still My Soul==, into a major production. Orchestration, background vocals, and all the technology Nashville has to offer was at their beck and call. Yet, other than adding strings to three of the songs, guitars to another two, and drums on one, they opted for the simple production they had already done. And it is the simplicity of the songs that seems to be connecting with their audience.

"If we had had a real budget at the beginning, I don't think it would have turned out this simple," Nicol explains.

"And too, these songs are so great," Allan adds. "They have stood on their own for decades, even centuries. They don't need a lot of slick production, or bells and whistles."

"We just love them," Todd says of the hymns. "They are so pure, there were no motives to write a song for radio airplay or money."

Although they insist they did not plan it, Selah is benefiting from the resurgence in popularity of praise and worship music. As evidenced by the phenomenal success of such contemporary projects as {{Darrell Evans}}' joyous praise album, ==Freedom==, {{Twila Paris}}' worshipful ==Perennial==, and {{Sonic Flood}}'s blatantly confessional debut project, the church is ready for some vertical music.

Now that stardom is on the horizon, Nicol says they are finding their hearts more and more drawn toward the once dreaded mission field. Having recently returned from a short trip to India, the three friends were still struck by how affected they were by the experience.

"It was hot, and it was sticky, and there is a lot of persecution," Todd says of the predominately Hindu country. "We didn't know how safe we were, so everyone had to look out for each other. We were there with three pastors. They weren't impressed that we were singers and we weren't impressed that they were pastors. We all had a job to do and we had to work together to get it done."

"There is something about being in a place where no one has ever heard of you, where who you are doesn't mean squat, that is really good for you," Nicol interjects. "I need to do that fairly regularly because it gives me a reality check."

"The people there were very receptive, and very polite," Todd continues. "They were just happy that we came. It was very humbling. I wondered to myself, 'What am I doing up here on stage? They are the ones who get death threats for their faith. The most I get is maybe a dirty look.' The amazing thing about Christians is that I didn't know their culture, I didn't speak their language, and they didn't know anything about my past. We didn't know anything about each other, but there was automatically a connection. We had everything in common because of Christ. Because of Him we could all come together and worship, and trust each other."

Nicol's eyes begin to sparkle. The girl who the once adamantly refused to return to the missions field now delights in talking about {{Selah}} raising money to support medical missions in Africa, or bringing other artists with her on a return trip to India.

"I would love to do more of this," she says simply.

"We need to," Todd concurs.