Christian artist Michael W. Smith enlisted some of Nashville’s best voices to join him on his fourth career holiday album, titled The Spirit of Christmas (Sparrow Records/Universal). Vince Gill (performing “Christmas Time Is Here”), Martina McBride (“What Child Is This”), Jennifer Nettles (“Christmas Day”), Lady Antebellum (“White Christmas”), and U2’s Bono are among the names lending their time and talents to the project. “I’m still pinching myself that we pulled all that off,” Smith said during rehearsals for CMA Country Christmas, which airs tonight at 7 p.m. CT on ABC.
Smith contributed two performances to tonight’s CMA Country Christmas airing, showcasing songs from the project. Carrie Underwood joined Smith for a rendition of “All Is Well,” while Little Big Town offered their signature harmonies on “Silent Night.”
Robert Deaton, a longtime executive producer for the Country Music Association awards, as well as executive producer for CMA Country Christmas, signed on to produce the album, along with Smith orchestral maestro David Hamilton. The Spirit of Christmas marks Deaton’s first foray into album production, and Smith says the idea for the project originated with Deaton.
“Last year’s [CMA Country Christmas] performance with Jennifer Nettles is what kicked off the whole idea to do this record,” Smith says. “I wanted to do another Christmas album, and collaborate with singers, so Robert brought this whole idea to me. It’s a lot of his relationships. Robert began naming all these people, and I thought, ‘What if they all say no?’ But then to get in there and find out that Little Big Town had my Go West Young Man record when they were teenagers. That’s wild. They were fans, and I think Carrie grew up singing some of my stuff in church.”
Smith assures the admiration is mutual. “I’m fans of everyone on this record, and I think it’s out of the box, and I like doing things out of the box. What a great opportunity to get outside of your musical bubble.”
In a time where collaborations are often solitary affairs, with artists laying down their separate vocal parts in studios thousands of miles apart, The Spirit of Christmas was crafted with artists melding their music talents together in the studio, lending a creative synergy to the recordings. “The biggest challenge to making the record was schedules, with all these A-level artists,” Smith states. “I think just looking at the calendar and booking artists two and a half months out, that was the biggest challenge. But recording together created such a good fellowship. I’ve never really hung out with Lady A. I see Hillary [Scott] at Whole Foods and we’ll chat. I sang with Little Big Town, Martina, Carrie, and I think they genuinely came in with a lot of excitement and passion.”
The Spirit of Christmas is a deft mix of hymns and classic carols, each uniquely suited to the artist performing it. For example, it was Little Big Town who crafted the harmonies heard on “Silent Night.” “They came in extremely prepared and had worked on it. I thought, from a production perspective, I just wanted them to do their thing because they do it so well,” Smith said. “We knew we wanted to do a lot of standards and take people down memory lane.”
One of the many standout tracks is “The Darkest Midnight,” featuring a spoken word rendition by U2 lead singer Bono, whom Smith has been friends with for 12 years. “That was one I didn’t know we would pull off,” Smith says of the track. “I was almost afraid to ask him. I knew he was in the middle of finishing up the U2 record, which was five years in the making. We knew that getting him to sing a song was probably a long shot, and when Robert laid it out, he said, ‘What if Bono did a spoken word? What if he read a psalm or if he found an old Irish carol or something?’ I emailed Bono, and he said the project sounded interesting.”
Smith selected the first and last verses from the seven-verse carol “The Darkest Midnight,” and sent it to Bono to record. “I was a little taken aback by the whispering thing, because I had written this bed of music to go under it. When he first sent it, I thought, ‘Is this going to work? He’s whispering.’ I kept listening to it, and I thought, ‘This is so Bono.’ I think it’s brilliant, what he did.”
Smith is currently bringing the sounds of Christmas to audiences across the country as part of his The Spirit of Christmas Tour. With another tour in the works for next year, Smith says he’s just beginning to look ahead to his next recording project. “I have to have time to dream a little bit,” says Smith. “I want to get out of the box and work with people I’ve never worked with. I love it when genres collide. I just watched the HBO documentary [Sonic Highways] with Dave Grohl. It’s amazing. Maybe he would come and do something on my record. I think there is room to bring in someone like Alison Krauss. I’m a huge fan of hers; she’s an amazing vocalist. For the next project, I’m really giving myself room to dream.”
Watch: Michael W. Smith performs “All Is Well” with Carrie Underwood and “Silent Night” with Little Big Town tonight (Dec. 1) during CMA Country Christmas, which airs beginning at 7 p.m. CT on ABC.
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