(RNS) — Michael W. Smith joins us in a conversation with Maina Mwaura to reflect on fatherhood and faith.
Maina: Well, I’ve had a lot of different titles, but the one that I love the most is that of being a father, and I’m here with another father, Michael W. Smith, and I should say father and grandfather.
MWS: I am.
Maina: Ok, five kids, 16 grandchildren.
MWS: I love it.
Maina: When you look back, what do you think?
MWS: When I watch our kids have kids, oh, my gosh, can you believe we did that five times? We did. We have five kids, and we raised them, and they survived and they’re thriving, you know. You know, if your kids are good, you’re good. And we had some battles, and we prayed for them through it. And just like I have my battles with my mom and dad, they saw me through it. You know, you just stay the course and, you know, we’re very, very grateful.
Maina: Well, you’ve got a new book called “The Way of the Father.” And it’s about your dad, Paul. Can you tell me a little bit about who Paul is, because it’s one of those things where I’m going, ‘Man… faithful, child of God, loved his kids, loved you dearly. Your PR man?’ Who was he to you?
MWS: Well, he was a great man. He was. I always say he was the kindest man I’ve ever known who had to be my dad. And I just watched it my whole life. I just watched him love my mom well and love my sister and I well. And love his community well. Deacon at the church, coaching me in baseball growing up. Both my mom and dad had this just impeccable reputation that just everybody loved my mom and dad, and I can see why. They were never judgmental. They never said anything bad about anybody.
And I knew when my dad got dementia, I think in 2011, when he started showing signs of that. I knew one day I’d write a book about my dad. But when he got dementia, I knew that I might write it sooner than I thought.
Maina: It seemed like you enjoyed it a lot, and there were some moments in it, I don’t want to give away too much, there are points in the book where you can tell, this was a turning point for you, personally. What did it do for you to write the book?
MWS: I guess you always get at the end of it, just like a record going, ‘Gosh, is it really done?’ But as I kept reading it, even going back and rereading, I went, you know, I think this is good. And what’s beautiful about the book, is the book is not only about my dad, but it’s really what my dad taught me about God. You know, I’ll tell a story about my dad and the attributes of what my dad did, and that sort of turned out to be Our Father, you know, and so every chapter does that. So I think that’s the beauty of the book, is that those two things sort of intertwine. But it all starts out with my dad. There’s a story about my dad who made me think different.
Maina: And you say this in the book: ‘I want to let you in on some lessons I learned from my dad and how those connect with truths I have come to live out.’ And so here we are in this great musical studio here. How did it live out in your music?
MWS: Well, I think the big thing about my father, he literally edified me my whole life.
Maina: I mean, I know that’s one of the things: He leaves his life basically to be your PR guy. And what was it like working side by side with him in that era? Because he literally gives up what he’s doing his entire life and he literally goes, ‘I want to plant myself here.’ How did you feel about that as a son at the time? What was it like working with him?
MWS: Yeah, well, I really didn’t know at the time. And then to go back and really reflect, you know, to really think about as you get older and you start to hopefully not think about yourself and just think about, you know, ‘what is my mom and dad’s legacy?’ And my dad, he had a dream, but he gave up the dream, and he did the right thing to come and take care of my real grandmother, his mom, because his dad died of a heart attack when he was a teenager. So I think a little bit of my dad, he was sort of living out his dream through me a little bit, especially coaching me. And then when I did make the All Stars at 15, the music thing, the PR thing was his thing.
I can see him. I could see him still in concert. I remember being with Amy Grant one night, and my dad’s out there. All these kids are going crazy. My dad’s in the aisle dancing in the aisles.
He just loves music. He was a crooner. Sounds like Frank Sinatra. And he just was so musical. Then the fact that he got to see me be successful.
Maina: Front row seat!
MWS: He got a front row seat, and he was so proud. Yeah. And my mom, too, but my dad…
Maina: He was there and he takes that front-row seat. Can we take a turn a little bit here, because he’s also there when things, like every parent goes through with their kids, when things don’t work out the way that we want it to work out. What did you learn from him in that four-year stint when you decided to really backslide from the Lord. What did you learn from him during that period?
MWS: Well, it was hard for me because I knew I was hurting him. Yeah, you know, there was that shame thing there. But he was consistent. He was patient. He was kind. He never threw down the gauntlet and said, you’re out of here. He never did any of those things. He had a lot he had probably every right to sort of…
Maina: Say, ‘hey, you are out of here.’
MWS: Exactly! I mean, you know, and he didn’t know what to do other than pray for me, and I think, I mean, I’m just speculating. I’m thinking that maybe he didn’t want to say anything that might push me even further. So he didn’t, he just didn’t know what to say. So he would just love me. He just loved me. And I think I talk about in the book, you know, the one time I go out, we go out on the porch and have a little talk. You know, I really didn’t say anything.
I had hung my head, and my dad, he just said, ‘Son, you kind of have to pull it together. You get pulled together. You stop doing this stuff.’ He’s so kind and he’s just a loving father because he’s just going because he knew that if I didn’t pull it together, I think he knew, as well as I did, I could lose my life. You know, you make that one bad choice…
Maina: It could go the wrong way. But he also saw what was to come. And so it’s one of those things, when you look back now, Michael, and there are five kids, 16 grandkids. And it’s weird because I know you as a music guy. And, of course, you know, I mean, anyone who follows you for a long time, they know about your wife, obviously. But I’ve gotten to know you in the last couple of days, just in my own research, as a father. And what was that role, and what is that role like as a father and a grandfather?
MWS: Well, I loved it. I mean, I just love being a dad, you know, I mean. I think we’re all called to be good dads. I mean, we have kids and we have… They are not just Mom’s kids, but Dads kids, too. And the importance of my role as a father is very important, you know. I learned that through Scripture, and I learn that obviously from my relationship with the Lord, I learn it from my dad. So I found myself, growing up with my kids, I found myself doing things that my dad did.
Maina: Weird how that happened, and you’ll face things like, ‘I can’t believe I’m repeating Mr. Mwaura!’
MWS: And your mannerisms, too. All that stuff. And I can attest to, ‘Oh my gosh, I just did what my dad did.’
Maina: Can we talk about music for just a little bit? You’ve been so faithful for so many years. How were you able to balance it all? I mean, being a dad is a full-time job. And then on top of that, you’re also a multi Dove, Grammy Award musician, at the same time. How did you balance it all?
MWS: Well, I just you know, I put family first. Deb and I talked about this extensively in the early days, especially when, you know, when things really began to take off, you know, when I was opening up for Amy and all of a sudden you got 18,000 people showing up. And we thought, there’s a better chance of us being a casualty than not, so we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.
It can suck you into this whole thing of entitlement, and you’re a rock star and all that kind of stuff can take you for a ride. And then I just made some rules and said I’d never be away from my family more than two weeks. That’s just the rules. Even if I have to go to Europe. I never was gone more than two weeks.
Maina: I think now we look at stuff and we go, OK, so much faster, today’s culture. Back then, though, when you were on tour, you were on tour. There was no coming back home and that kind of stuff.
MWS: And people still do that. People still go out for months at a time. I mean, I don’t know how you do it and keep a family together, but that’s just my opinion. But you know, I think that really saved our family. I would walk off stage, get in a plane, come home and drive carpool. I did that for 13 years, you know.
Maina: Wait a minute. You were in the carpool?
MWS: I was in the carpool line. I’d land at midnight, but I’d stay in bed till 7:15, and Deb’s getting the kids all fed, I get out of bed at 7:25 and get in that car, going, ‘alright, here we go.’ And we were always late, but hey. But it was great.
Maina: It seems like you miss it, though, Michael. A little bit.
MWS: I miss… Yeah, it’s a different season, you know? I really miss being a dad when they were that age. I miss kids being in the house. But you know what? But this is life. You raise your kids. They leave you. You know, hopefully they stay kind of close. They get married, and then you have grandkids, you know. And so this is sort of this next chapter of enjoying your grandkids. It’s kind of like having kids, but it’s really not because you’re not responsible for all the stuff. You get to do all the fun stuff and send them home. You know what I’m saying.
Maina: That’s what my Mom tells me.
MWS: But, I love being a grandfather. That’s why I always praise God. Three things I pray: one, Lord, how do I abide in you? That’s my No. 1 prayer. No. 2 goes, I will never, ever, ever be offended by anyone ever again. Wow. I think that would be amazing. I’m getting there.
Maina: It’s hard in this industry. It is. Yeah, that is very hard.
MWS: But I’m getting there. And then No. 3, I want to live a long life. Because I want to be there for my grandkids and maybe who knows, gosh, great-grandkids one day. But whatever wisdom I have, to be able to just be there for them as I get older, and maybe I can just help them through life.
Maina: Next, the last question. (Your father), Paul, toward the end of his life, he gets dementia. I mean, it’s one of those things where it takes a toll. What would you say to someone who’s battling that and going through that as a child? They’re watching their hero deteriorate, literally in front of them. What advice would you give?
MWS: Try to spend as much time with them as you can, if you can. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re long distance, you know? Now we do Zoom. We do FaceTime.
You know, just on a practical level. They’ll say things that are not true, you know? Yeah, I’d say just stay away. Don’t even talk. Just don’t go there. Because if you sit here, ‘That’s really not true, Dad.’
Maina: You’re going to be there a long time.
MWS: And then they get frustrated. ‘Well, what do you mean it’s not true.’ Change the subject. Just don’t disagree. Just try to kind of get on a sort of level playing field and just talk about something positive. Choose your battles.
I lost my dad last year. He had to go to a facility, which I hated. Oh my gosh. It was fortunately only less than 10 minutes from my house. So I was there almost every day with my dad, and he still knew who I was until the very end, which was awesome. And in the end, one of his favorite things to do was sing. Crazy about this, all these people with dementia, they can’t remember what they did five minutes ago, and then when you break into the songs, they start singing! ‘Take me out to the ball game!’ It was awesome. All the hymns, every word! It’s a strange disease, you know, but again, those are the kind of things that really brought my dad lots of life. I’d bring my piano and set up. We’d have a concert.
Maina: I want to end on a high note here a little bit. You’ve been at this music thing for a long time, man. You still enjoy it?
MWS: I love it. Really. I think I might be enjoying it more now than I ever have. I feel the wind is at my back. I really don’t care what people think.
Maina: Was it hard getting there, though?
MWS: But it’s almost like you go, ‘What’s really important?’ You start to become it, you start to become intentional. The dynamics have changed now. I’ve got a mom who’s got dementia. I’ve got grandkids growing up. And there’s still this call of God in your life here in the midst. So it’s a little bit of juggling, but I found myself probably being more free. And I’m excited about it, you know, and all these opportunities. I mean, that Andrea Bocelli and Italy and we’ve got this book…
Maina: And I got to tell you, the book? I would tell anyone to pick it up. You will go through it. You will go through it and go, wow, it’s funny. Great job. Thank you for having us up to your beautiful home and studio.
MWS: You’re welcome. Thank you.