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By Billboard

Rascal Flatts, Vince Gill, Amy Grant & more will pay tribute to the Christian music icon at April concert.

On April 30, artists across all music genres will come together at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena to fete Christian music icon Michael W. Smith on his 35 years of making music. Amy Grant, Backstreet Boys' Brian Littrell, CeCe Winans, The Gatlin Brothers, Jars of Clay, Jason Crabb, Jim Brickman, Lee Greenwood, MercyMe, Natalie Grant, Newsboys, The Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, Rascal Flatts, Ricky Skaggs, Russ Taff, Sandi Patty, Vince Gill, Wynonna and more have signed on to participate in 35 Years of Friends: Celebrating the Music of Michael W. Smith.

Smith admits he was hesitant at first about the event, promoted by Outback Concerts and produced by Conway Entertainment Group, because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself or his career. “I really questioned it because I’m not comfortable with it, but at the same time, if somebody wants to do that I think you’ve got to consider being able to step back and receive,” he says. “I pray it’s just a great night, God honoring and people will be blessed. I think it can mean more than just celebrating the music of my life. I pray that people’s lives will be changed that night.” The event will not be broadcast live, but there may be a special culled from the evening in the future.

Such is Smith’s reach over the last four decades that he can draw such a broad swath of artists to salute him, but don’t mistake the tribute as a sign that Smith is slowing down. On Friday, Smith’s fifth live album, Awaken: The Surrounded Experience, comes out on his Smith’s Rocketown Records, distributed through The Fuel Music. The album captures Smith’s August 2018 concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, filmed for a TBN television special that aired last fall.

“The whole thing was strictly for the TV special. It wasn’t even planned [as an album], but something so beautiful happened that night,” Smith tells Billboard.

Smith says his managers, Greg Ham and Chaz Corzine, were among those who encouraged him to release the event as an album. “Greg and Chaz and all these other people said, ‘Man, you should really think about releasing that audio so people can experience it.’ And I couldn’t find any way to argue with them, so here we are,” he says with a laugh.

Awaken is just the latest project in what has been a banner period for the three-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter. In 2018, he released three albums: live worship album Surrounded, studio album A Million Lights, and children’s album Lullaby. He also released his first two children’s books: Nighty Night and Good Night and Let’s Get Ready for Bed.

The same day as Awaken’s release , Smith sets out on the multi-artist Roadshow tour with Tenth Avenue North, Matt Maher and others. Later in the spring, he joins Newsboys United to co-headline Surrounded & United: The Tour, launching April 10. This summer, he has dates in South Africa and Brazil before teaming up with longtime pal Amy Grant for a series of Christmas concerts.

Awaken captures the Christian music superstar leading worship at the August event as well as special guests CeCe Winans singing “King of Glory” and Vanessa Campagna & Madelyn Berry delivering “Waymaker” along with the voices of the 14,000 people in the audience.

“It was my crazy idea to do this [with] every race, every color, every tribe, every nation at Bridgestone praying and singing over our city,” Smith relates. “TBN really wanted to be a part of it after I shared that vision with them, so it was strictly just for them. ... I would listen to [the evening] in my car and thought, ‘There’s something there,’ and I’m excited for the world to hear it and not just see it.”

Smith originally recorded the first single, “Surrounded (Fight My Battles),” with an audience of 400 people at the Factory in Franklin, Tenn., for 2018’s Surrounded. “There’s just something about the song,” he says of why it was chosen as the lead single. “It’s a little reminder that [God has] got this. That’s why people love that song. They are in the trenches and they start singing that song. That’s their warfare and fight song. That’s why I think it connects.”

Other highlights on the project include Winans delivering “King of Glory.” “The first person I thought of was CeCe,” Smith says. “She’s the mother to this city. I called her and she said, ‘I’ll just come and pray.’ I said, ‘Well that’s great. I’d love for you to sing, but you don’t have to sing.’ I sent her ‘King of Glory,’ and she texted me back and said, ‘All right, you got me with that song! I might have to do that song.’ It was a great moment. She just brought the whole house down.”

Smith says what made the Bridgestone event so special was the diversity of the audience and the unity present in the arena. “There were so many races represented in that building and that’s what made it heaven to me, because there’s nothing pleases [God] more than seeing his church unified, which is usually not the case,” Smith said. “Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week, and that night, I saw Hispanic, black, white, Asians and I saw the Indians and the Koreans. It was awesome, and honestly I don’t think the night really ended. Something happened to our city. I really do believe something shifted. I’ve had a lot of pastors and spiritual leaders say to me they’ve never seen a more unified front ever and they think that stemmed from what happened at Bridgestone and I really believe that.”

Spreading the gospel and guiding people toward faith has always been and continues to be the West Virginia native’s mission. “It’s what I’m called to do. Thank God I’m in good health and I’ve got energy. I feel my best work is yet to come.”


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