The voice sounds so easygoing and genuine on the other end of the phone: “Hey, it’s Michael W.”
There can be only one Michael W., as in Michael W. Smith, who has carved a sensational career in Christian contemporary music that often crosses over into pop. That’s the case now with his new album, “Healing Rain,” which includes his version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which has hit adult-contemporary radio. It’s also the case for his latest tour, which stops at Alltel Arena on Friday, May 6. It’s a departure from the symphony-based and worship-style ventures he’s done lately with such bands as Mercy Me and Third Day, veering back to his roots. And those beginnings, many may recall, were with Amy Grant, one of the first artists to bring Christian pop music to mass audiences.
“This is my first pop tour in five years,” Smith said before the tour started. “We’re doing a lot of good stuff, and I’m probably more excited about this tour than any I’ve done so far. We’ll have a whole night of music, and we’ll probably do some worship songs at the end.”
During a recent break in the tour, Smith saw U2 perform. The song “We Can’t Wait Any Longer” on Smith’s new album was written with U2’s Bono and British singer Dada.
“We can sing worship songs all day long, but we can’t forget the orphans and the widows and the 7,000 kids dying every day of AIDS in Africa,” Smith said. “We have to respond, whether you send a dollar a year, or call your senator and say you want them to release funds to stop this epidemic. It’s all about helping people.”
His favorite song on the new release, Smith says, is the title cut. “God is still in the business of restoring people’s lives. I see it every day. It’s amazing to me. ‘Healing Rain’ is a very positive song.”
Smith and this reporter reminisced about the Amy Grant touring years of more than two decades ago, before he embarked on a solo career, and the work he’s done in Nashville on his own and with other artists.
“I could never have orchestrated any of this,” he said. “ I remember finishing my first album and thinking, if I don’t make another album, I’m fine. I couldn’t imagine what would follow. Now I’m on album 18 and it just blows my mind.”
The return to Christian pop roots, Smith said, is just his trying “to stay true to who I am. You have to reinvent yourself in this business but at the same time stay true to your core values.”
Smith laughed about recently hearing “A Place in This World,” his first big hit, on an department store elevator. He’s turned out dozens since.
“People still respond, so I must be writing something relevant,” Smith said. “It’s all about the song. You can look good, but that’s going to last maybe one or two albums. After that, you’d better have the songs.”
And, to Smith, that doesn’t mean songs that are categorized just in one genre; it never has.
“I would love any exposure my songs get, I don’t care what radio station plays them,” he said. “But I’m not going to sell out and write a bunch of love songs to go on pop radio. There are not any guarantees for any song.”
Watermark, a group on Smith’s label, and rising Christian contemporary singer Selah are the opening acts. Showtime is 7:30 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $25.75 and $30.75 before Friday through Ticketmaster (975-7575), and $32.75 and $27.75 at the box office Friday.