On the morning after the mass shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Michael W. Smith had pain in his voice.
"Itís awful, itís just awful," said the Grammy-winning Christian music superstar. "Everybodyís going to have their opinion. Do we need gun control? Yes, we need gun control. Do we need to put a focus on mental illness? Yes, we do. Nobody seems to talk about the God factor, which I think should be addressed. Sometimes you just wonder, when you have a nation that continues to block God out of everything, you wonder if thereís any repercussions from that."
Was the shooting tied, on any level, to any sort of cultural war on faith? Smith had no idea. But he doesnít see it ending.
"I think itís going to continue to happen. I know the end of the story, I do know that. You can kill the body, but you canít kill the soul. There are people out there who donít even know me who would want to kill me. Itís just mind-boggling to me, but I think itís straight from the pit of hell. Itís the devil. And Iím trying to spread a message of love."
There is no time for that like the holidays. Smith and his old friend Amy Grant will do their best to do just that when their annual Christmas tour rolls into Amalie Arena on Sunday.
Smith and Grant are very old friends ó you can find their song Thy Word in actual church-pew hymnals ó who went on to become two of Christian popís biggest superstars. And this holiday tour, Smith said, remains one of their favorite shared experiences.
"We stand on stage, and I grab her hand, and we both almost say at the same time: ĎCan you believe we get to do this every night?í?" he said. "We just smile at each other, kind of giddy. You walk on that stage, and youíve got this huge symphony playing behind you, and you feel elevated."
Smith, 60, has released some 25 albums in his long and prolific career ó his next, A Million Lights, is due in February ó including four of Christmas hymns, covers and originals. He isnít sure how many Christmas songs heís written, but he and his cowriters approach each one with the same care as the rest of his work. He calls All Is Well, from 1989ís Christmas, "probably my favorite song Iíve ever written."
Falling into songwriting traps and cliches can be a tough task when writing holiday music, he said, but "I just challenge whoever Iím writing it with. We canít just say the same thing. Weíve got to figure out how to say it different."
That also goes for writing worship music, another genre where writing meaningful lyrics, rather than regurgitating the same sentiments over and over, can be difficult.
"I certainly donít think thereís anything wrong with singing whatís in scripture, like Glory to God in the highest or whatever," he said. "But whatever the other part of the lyric is, youíve got to try and find a different twist, and try to come up with something different, poetically, to make it feel like its own thing. Thatís always a challenge."
On his last holiday album, 2014ís The Spirit of Christmas, Smith and his producers got creative when recruiting another well-known collaborator: Bono. Smith goes back years with the U2 frontman, and he was initially unsure about inviting him to recite a traditional Irish poem on the track The Darkest Midnight. But it worked.
"He really got into it," Smith said. "Itís a cool moment. Itís a little dark, but thereís something cool about the darkness of him reading this poem, especially being the last thing before you go into the last song on the record, which is me and Michael McDonald singing Peace. The whole sequence works."
Here, you might be wondering how Smith, a religious conservative who has performed at the Republican National Convention, came to be friends with Bono in the first place. They share an interest in various humanitarian charities, from AIDS and African relief to the poverty ministry Compassion International.
"Our relationshipís more based on rallying the troops and trying to make the world a better place," Smith said. "Thatís been the biggest part of my work with Bono, is just to try to get the church active in standing up for justice and helping make the world better, and getting rid of a lot of these people who are just corrupt, who are just awful, and see if we can bring some light in the world."
In a nation so often divided, there are worse things to wish for this Christmas.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.
. if you go
Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith
Jordan Smith also performs. 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $35.75 and up. (813) 301-2500. amaliearena.com.