Michael W. Smith: Grammy Winner and Grandfather By Jeremy V. Jones
Michael W. Smith doesn’t stand a chance. His grandkids surround him like a ducking, darting swarm of bees. They run and pounce and fling themselves at him from every angle. He has strength, size and experience on his side, but they outnumber him, and the raucous tribe won’t be stopped until they’ve buried their granddad beneath a mound of giggly kids. And Michael loves every minute of it.
Joy, positivity and freedom — the same qualities that keep him willing to get crazy with the grandkids — have been hallmarks of Michael W. Smith and his music for decades. He’s been called many things throughout his illustrious 31-year recording career: Grammy winner, American Music Award winner, Dove Award winner (41 times), artist of the year, songwriter of the year, producer of the year, Smitty. But his favorite title just might be G-Daddy. That’s what Michael’s 11 grandchildren call him.
“Other than my faith in Christ, my family has been the No. 1 thing [in my life], and still is,” Michael says.
But let’s clarify our terms. Family in Michael’s case means four generations sharing life together, with all its chaos and tenderness, joy and heartache, mountaintop and mundane moments. Those relationships anchor and inspire the man at their center: the son, husband, father and granddad — and the recording artist who continues to move and shape the worship of multiple generations worldwide.
Family foundations Michael and Debbie have been married for 33 years (after three weeks of dating and a four-month engagement). They have been empty nesters for about three years, but their actual nest just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, is rarely empty. All five of their children — Ryan, Whitney, Tyler, Anna and Emily — are married with kids and live nearby. The whole clan gathers at least weekly at Michael and Debbie’s farm.
“When all the adults are in one room having a conversation, I’m usually the one being the crazy kid, the 57-year-old on the floor with all the grandkids,” Michael says.
“They flock to him because he’s a source of joy,” says Michael’s oldest son, Ryan, who is father to four of those grandkids.
The grandchildren range in age from 8 years down to several months, and G-Daddy’s daily life usually includes some kind of interaction with at least one of them. Scroll through his social media photos, and you’ll see him tending Asa’s stroller, playing guitar with Smith (onstage), recording with Audrey (who sings the opening to “Somewhere in My Memory” on Michael’s recent The Spirit of Christmas album) or taking in Whitaker’s T-ball game (a special treat because Michael was an avid baseball player growing up).
Michael is not afraid to drive carpool either. He had plenty of experience with his own kids. When his children were young, Michael used a private plane for his concert tours. “He would fly home after a concert and get home in the middle of the night just so he could drive us all to school in the morning,” Ryan says.
As with any family with five children, the schedule was hectic. But the Smiths were purposeful about family time for fun, music, creativity and worship — even if all didn’t go as planned.
“Deb had this dream that we would be like The Sound of Music and sit around the piano and make music together,” Michael says. “That didn’t always happen. Our kids were so creative, it was hard to keep them focused.”
Still they tried, and they built a foundation of family worship that continues today. At least monthly, the extended family gathers at the Smith farm for family church. The generations gather in the great room and sing together.
Sometimes Michael or Debbie leads a separate Bible lesson for the kids downstairs. It still doesn’t always work, Michael admits. But they’re extending the tapestry of worship to another generation.
Ahead through hardship Michael’s deep sense of gratitude is obvious when he’s talking about his loved ones. It’s also evident that his life is not free of hardship — that his appreciation for the blessings is that much richer because it’s shadowed with struggles.
Michael’s current adversity is his father’s dementia, so Michael’s daily routine also includes a visit to help and encourage his parents. Paul and Barbara Smith have lived nearby in Nashville for 20 years. “Mom is a rock star, loving Dad in the middle of all that,” Michael says.
“Trying to emotionally juggle my dad getting sick and the ecstasy of watching my kids have kids, all in the middle of a pretty vibrant career — it’s like I wake up sometimes and it feels like a dream. You just take one day at a time, and say, ‘OK, God, this is all I’ve got. I’m not guaranteed tomorrow, so let’s make it count.’ ”
It’s a lesson gleaned from a defining moment when Michael’s kids were young. Debbie’s best friend died after five days in a coma from a horseback riding accident. She and her husband had been part of a small group with the Smiths. Those parents and families had held vigil, prayed fervently for their friend’s healing, cared for her family and eventually grieved and found healing together.
“That changed our lives,” Michael says. “I think it did something to our kids in a good way. I think facing the hard stuff and asking, Why, God? set in motion an understanding of the brevity of life and of what’s most important in life — that at the end of the day, we only have this moment. I don’t think they’ve forgotten.”
Michael hasn’t. Maybe that’s why he savors so fully the ups and downs of family life in all its generations, letting it fuel his creativity. Instead of slowing down, Michael released three albums last year, a fitting trio to represent his place in life. Hymns honors the timeless foundations of his faith. The Spirit of Christmas traces the emotional arc of the season and Christ intersecting within and beyond it. And Sovereign infuses Michael’s signature pop-worship with innovative production.
Michael certainly shows no signs of slowing down.
“I don’t see retirement anywhere in the Bible,” he says.
“I love to write. I love to play. It’s still the most beautiful place. It’s a calling.
“Honestly, I’m dumbfounded that I have 11 grandchildren because I don’t feel old enough to be a granddad. I feel very young and vibrant. I probably feel stronger today than I ever have in my life. I feel like the wind is at my back. We are extremely grateful — life is good even in the midst of hard stuff.”
This article first appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled “Michael W. Smith: Grammy Winner and Grandfather.” If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.