In the beginning
I really can’t reflect on 20 years without first thinking of the early days with Amy. I was given the opportunity to play in her band and open for her even before my first record was out. The first night I stepped out with her in front of a few thousand people impacted me in ways I probably didn’t fully understand at the time.
Youth Night at the Billy Graham Crusade in Cleveland
Over the years, Billy and Ruth Graham have been incredibly encouraging to [my wife] Debbie and me. But the most powerful night I ever spent with him was in 1994. Despite misgivings from some members of his staff, he invited me and dc talk to perform for a special youth night. It was the first time contemporary music had ever been performed and endorsed by one of his crusades. Over 50,000 kids showed up; and when he offered the invitation for people to come forward and accept Christ, 10,000 just poured out of the stands. I looked at Toby [McKeehan], we both began to cry, and I couldn’t quit. It was one of those times that left me and my band speechless.
Writing “Friends” with Debbie
I have no idea how many times I’ve sung “Friends.” When we wrote it for a friend who was moving away from Nashville to become a campus minister, Debbie and I never dreamed it would touch so many lives. Twenty years later, I still get letters on how it is being used at graduations, funerals and camps.
Collaborating with Ryan
My oldest son, Ryan, has a great ear for music. For example, he introduced me to Jars of Clay’s music before it really took off. What a hoot it was to co-write the song “Signs” with him that is on my "Second Decade" (Reunion) album! And because he’s got a real passion for filmmaking, he took on the assignment of directing the music video for the song. So, stay tuned.
The video that almost didn’t get made
In 1988 the producers of the “Fire by Night” TV show asked me two or three times to come out to Tulsa and make a music video of “Secret Ambition,” but I kept turning them down. Their production budget was only $2,000, and I couldn’t imagine that anything good could be created for so little money. But thankfully, they were persistent. I finally agreed to do it, and I kicked in some money myself so they could shoot it on film instead of video. Scenes from “The Great Passion Play” in Eureka Springs, Ark., were woven in with my scenes shot way out in western Oklahoma. By the end of our shooting day, I knew something special had happened, but I had no idea of its future impact. To this day, people tell me they accepted Christ after seeing the video.
A pop song with bagpipes?
Performing at the memorial service following the tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado remains one of the most sobering experiences of my life. After that day, I knew I had to do something. That “something” became the song “This Is Your Time” that I co-wrote with Wes King. I recorded it and sent a copy to Cassie Bernall’s family to get their blessing, but I felt that the ending just wasn’t right. At 3:00 one morning, I woke up and, in my head, heard the song being played with bagpipes. I called Cassie’s mom later that morning to tell her I wanted to re-record the ending with bagpipes. There was silence on the other end of the phone, and I thought I’d offended her or lost the connection. Then, with obvious emotion, she told me that bagpipes were Cassie’s favorite instrument. Enough said.
Rocketown becomes a reality
For four years, I had been trying to launch a youth outreach in the form of a teen club called Rocketown. Many times I had been told why it wouldn’t work. On April 29, 1994, we opened the doors to a former warehouse in a business park on a dead-end street in Franklin, Tennessee. With no real advertising, 700 kids crowded into the building. While the theme from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey blasted through the place, I surveyed the sea of young faces eager to find out what this place was about. I sat on the floor of the sound booth and cried.
And so does the other Rocketown
I’d known for a long time that I wanted to start a record company someday. That dream became a series of serious conversations with Don Donahue, who was working at Reunion Records. One day we were on the farm talking about it for the umpteenth time, and I finally said, “Let’s do it.” Not long after that Don played me Chris Rice’s “Welcome to Our World,” which blew me away. I figured that anyone who could write something that good probably had a lot more great songs in store. He did — and does. Based on the strength of his music, the songwriter-centered record company was started.
Although I’m happy with a lot of the albums I’ve recorded, my absolute favorite is the instrumental album, "Freedom" (Reunion). The music I write tends to have a symphonic nature, so it was incredible to bring to life the arrangements I had heard in my head. It was an amazing experience to record most of the album with the Irish Film Orchestra at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, where U2 did some of its early work.
Friends Really Are Friends Forever
Looking back on the first tour I headlined in 1985 with Kathy Troccoli and Billy Sprague brings back great memories. My band was Wayne Kirkpatrick, Chris Rodriguez, Chris and Jan Harris, David Huff and Mark Heimermann. Every member of that band has gone on to have an incredible individual impact on Christian music as writers, producers, studio musicians and performers. Those early days were rich, and it was a blast to be a part of it.
A few years ago, Debbie and I traveled to the Holy Land with a tour group led by her stepfather, Murray Severance. The most striking moment was walking through the East Gate in Jerusalem. It’s the only time I remember laughing and crying at the same time. The instrumental “Hope of Israel” on my Christmastime album was inspired by that experience.
The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
When “Place in This World” was picked up by pop radio stations, I was tossed from the cocoon of Christian music into the mainstream, where audiences could be pretty brutal. One night I performed solo in front of 7,000 rowdy people at what is called a “star party,” hosted by a pop/rock station. I opened with “Emily,” and I could tell I was not winning them over. When I tried to pick up the pace with “Love Crusade,” people began throwing things on stage, and a can actually slammed against my shoulder. I was furious but finished the song and moved on. When I finally started “Place in This World,” they recognized it and, finally, I got a reasonably positive response. But by then I was just desperate to get off the stage. I bowed quickly and stormed backstage. Eventually I cooled off and walked to where I could survey the crowd. It was like God was saying, “I gave you a heart for the lost — well, here they are.” It was a sobering and painful moment that deepened my commitment to touch lives.
A “Place” at the American Music Awards
Thanks to the undying enthusiasm of Claire West (in Geffen Records’ radio promotions department) for “Place in This World,” the song reached No. 1 on the pop charts; and, at the 1990 American Music Awards, I received the surprise of my life. When Alan Jackson and Queen Latifah read my name for “New Pop Artist of the Year,” it was a very surreal moment. What I love about the American Music Awards is that they are voted on by the public. Just thinking back on that night really humbles me.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
My first real contact with the Bush family was in 1989 when I was asked to perform on NBC’s “Christmas in Washington” special. After the performance the President asked some of us to come over to the White House. As we passed a piano, President Bush asked me if I’d like to play something. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Is it in tune?” He responded, “Well, I hope so!” And our friendship began. I’ll never forget: I was playing Christmas carols ... in the White House ... for the First Family ... with Olivia Newton-John ... and the whole time I’m thinking, “How did I get from Kenova, W.V., to here?”
A few months later I found myself on the tennis court in a heated match with the President and his son “W.” I spent more time with the younger George when I performed at his brother Jeb’s inauguration as Governor of Florida. One of the biggest honors of my career came when George W. Bush asked me to perform at the prayer service honoring his own inauguration. It was the first time I ever played the song “Above All.” I was nervous, of course, and I think that I actually sang a few wrong words but I kept playing anyway. I appreciate so much what the Bush family has meant to our country.
No One in the Spotlight
Several years ago we took worship in a new direction on the first night of Gospel Music Week. We gathered a bunch of artists but agreed it should not be self-serving in any way — no new songs were introduced and no one got a step-out or a solo. We all just gathered together to worship. I think that event set the mood for the entire week and has had a great impact on our industry as a whole. I think it was one of the most meaningful events I’ve ever attended at GM Week.
Spiritual Warfare … On the road
Probably the hardest and most rewarding tour I have been a part of was the “I’ll Lead You Home” tour. We had mounted this huge production, and it seemed like there were problems at every turn. I completely lost my voice and, for the first time ever, had to cancel shows. The Jars [of Clay] boys were opening, and one of them had to have an emergency appendectomy. One of the crew guys was hit with severe food poisoning … and on and on and on. It was hard to understand at the time what was happening. Looking back, I truly believe it was a spiritual thing. It was warfare. We ended the evening every night with some clips from Billy Graham — and I know that we were making a difference out there.
The Bono Connection
Bono, of U2 fame, has been reaching out to the Christian community to enlist support of the organization D.A.T.A. (Debt, AIDS, Trade for Africa). My first contact was when Bono was in Nashville for some meetings. We spent a good bit of time together and began a friendship. And while my family was in Dublin this past summer, I called him, and he invited all of us over for lunch. He brought out a boom box and played four new songs that probably even his record company hadn’t heard yet. What a thrill for my kids! His hospitality was over the top.
We had the incredible privilege of having the pastor of Belmont Church, Don Finto, join us on the road several times over the years. I remember standing backstage waiting for an encore at a concert on Oct. 31, 1986, in Seattle. A group of girls could see me from the balcony and began screaming, “We love you, Michael!” Just as I was starting to swell with pride, I felt Don’s big, loving hand on my shoulder. He leaned toward me and said, “It’s not you. It’s not you. Give it up. Give it up.” Don has had an incredible impact on my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for him.
Worship... for the record
Recording the first "Worship" record was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. We chartered four or five planes and took 20 or so artists to Lakeland, Fla., to sing on the record. We rehearsed during the day, and the time together was so great. When we all got together to pray before going onstage, the Spirit moved in a way that we lost all track of time. We wound up starting the concert/recording really late. I can’t really explain what the recording was like — and the time together with the other artists after the concert — other than to say, “God showed up.” It was really an amazing night, and I am still so grateful to everybody that showed up to be a part of that night.
In 1988, our family “adopted” a young girl in Ecuador through the child sponsorship organization Compassion International. We have always exchanged letters and photographs over the years, and I’ve been able to visit her several times while on Compassion trips. The culmination of this 16-year relationship was the honor I had to hand Gavi her high school diploma and reflect on how God had transformed a little girl from a poverty-stricken family into a beautiful young woman. It reminds me of the promise given in the book of Jeremiah that He has given us all “a hope and a future.”
Note: Through the promotion of Compassion International during Michael’s concerts, more than 22,000 children have been sponsored.
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