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Michael W. Smith Recalls Growing Up in Kenova

by: Dave Wellman

Three decades have passed since Michael W. Smith left Kenova, W.Va., for Nashville, Tenn., to pursue a career in music.

Michael Smith

It was 1978 and he was just 20-years-old, only two years out of C-K High School. Michael W. had the God-given ability to write and sing songs, even as a youngster, and he knew moving to Nashville would give him the best opportunity to make a living in music.

His friends knew it, too."Hey, you can do it, move to Nashville," he recalls hearing more than once. "Michael was in my youth choir," said longtime friend Dan Ferguson, referring to The New Generation. "He was working on his music then. He was playing piano and singing; he even had a little trio he was in."

Since he had accepted the fact that his other dream – the one of playing baseball for a living – was not going to come true, Smith listened to his friends and his heart and moved to Nashville. At first, he made ends meet by planting shrubs – clearly not the work he had in mind in Music City.

His landscaping career didn't last forever, though. In the ensuing months and years, the hard-working, determined and – yes – confident Smith signed a songwriting contract, recorded his first album, "Michael W. Smith Project," and got married.

Suddenly, almost miraculously, the young man from Kenova, W.Va., was world famous and, truly, living a dream.

"I never could have orchestrated any of this," Smith said in a recent interview with the Huntington Quarterly. "It was God's plan. I was always optimistic I could make it, I was very confident. But you can never plan 25 years of it. It completely blows my mind that here I am, after 25 years of making music. I just made my 21st album. It is very surreal."

Twenty-five years of making music is only part of the story. Twenty-five years of making great music, all the while practicing what he preaches, is the real story. Smith has won an incredible 42 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, which honor outstanding achievements in Christian music. He has sold millions of records. In Kenova, a street is named after him.

But Michael W. Smith has something even more precious than all the Dove and Grammy Awards, accolades and hit records. He has peace.

"You certainly never expect it," he said after being honored with his two latest Dove Awards in late April. "You always root for the young guys coming along. So, when I get these I say, ‘Wow, I've got enough.' You never want it to get old to the point where you don't appreciate it. But, if I never win another one, I'll be at peace."

Smith won Dove Awards this year for Christmas Album of the Year ("It's a Wonderful Christmas") and Special Event Album of the Year ("Glory Revealed").

He also was honored during the Dove Awards for the 25 years of music. With Smith at the piano, Amy Grant, Chris Sligh, Phil Stacey and Mandisa paid tribute to Smith by joining him in singing some of his best-known songs, including "Place in This World" and "Secret Ambition."

Smith has performed and recorded music all over the world. He has sung for presidents and national leaders. The Rev. Billy Graham and his son, Franklin, are close friends. Yet, Michael W., son of Paul and Barbara Smith, remains humble.

Michael Smith

"I honestly don't think of myself as being superior to anybody," he said. "I refuse to elevate myself to be bigger than anybody else. This is just what I'm called to do."

Perhaps, he says, growing up in Kenova, learning from highly respected high school teachers, Sunday school teachers, coaches and parents, has helped him remain level headed throughout his career.

"He is still humble and he's never too busy to greet people," Ferguson said. "The one thing that really sticks out is that what he has accomplished, what he's done himself. He's used good judgment. He works hard every day. He's still the same guy he was when he went down there and was putting out shrubs. He stuck it out, he did it on his own. I admire that very much."

Michael now lives near Nashville in Franklin, Tenn., as do his parents.

"If ever there were two saintly people, it's Paul and Barbara Smith," Ferguson said. "They're just good people, good to everybody."

Michael W. recalls many "good people" from Kenova who had a positive influence on his life.

"I loved playing ball for Coach (Carl) Ward and I was especially very fond of Coach (Dale) Craycraft," Smith said. "He was my coach, but I loved him as a history teacher and he was my Sunday school teacher. He was a great man and I was very sad when he passed on. But, I'll see him again on the other side."

Michael rarely returns to Kenova now that his parents have moved to Franklin. But, the good memories of his childhood home have not faded.

"I have great memories of Kenova," he said. "I was very involved in my church (First Baptist Church of Kenova) and it seems like we knew everybody. I have really great memories of going, not only to grade school in Kenova, but to C-K."

C-K High School closed a decade ago when it consolidated with Vinson and Buffalo to form Spring Valley High School. "That's still sad to me," Smith said.

Michael W. plans to visit Kenova in September to help First Baptist Church celebrate its 100th anniversary. He will perform and speak.

"Michael not only has his music, but he has become a great speaker," Ferguson said. "He has grown so much. So, he will sing when he comes back in September, but he also will be the guest speaker."

Michael and his wife, Debbie, have five children, ranging in age from 24 to 16. Michael admits he misses those regular visits to Kenova, but says his children really miss the town – for one reason in particular. "They love Evaroni's Pizza," he said.

Now 50 years old, Smith hasn't slowed down one bit, personally or professionally. He strongly believes the next 25 years will be as good for his career, family and ministry as the past 25. He believes he is writing some of the best music of his career. "I feel good about the future," Smith said.

He had to leave Kenova to do it, but Michael W. Smith truly found his "Place in This World." A quarter-of-a-century and 42 Dove Awards later, it appears he made the right decision.

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