The line of vehicles that snaked off Interstate 40 and into the Williamson County Expo Center in Franklin, Tennessee last Friday (May 29) were bringing music fans to an event they had not had the opportunity to attend at least three months – a live music concert.
The Michael W. Smith show was the first of its kind for fans in the area, a drive-in event with an estimated crowd of 4,000-5,000 in attendance. Fans viewed the show on huge screens on each side of the stage and listened via an FM radio channel while sitting in folding chairs and watching young children run around with newly made friends. Many of the younger fans climbed on top of the cars or SUVs and viewed the show from an unobstructed vantage point.
Since the pandemic began, Smith stayed connected with fans through “Worship Around the World” via social media. The drive-in show was the first time that Smith and his band had performed together in months, and while the fans were very excited to have the opportunity to see a live show, the singer says he and his band were just as excited to be back together.
“We’re going to blow it out, we’re going for it,” Smith said in an interview with Sounds Like Nashville a few days before the show. “Everybody is excited; they may be more excited than I am. They are so pumped being back doing what we normally do. I think you will get that from the audience too. No live music these past eight or nine weeks, nothing, so it’s going to be an adventure to walk on stage and instead of 5,000 people in the seats, they are in their cars.”
Smith said he did not think it would matter who the artist was on stage, music fans were ready to go out and see live music again. “I actually got the idea about a week after things started shutting down, when I heard that Dave Matthews was going to do drive-in shows in the fall. I thought why not do one in the summer in my home town? The question was, can we pull it off? So here we are three days away and it’s going to happen.”
The singer admitted it was a little crazy pulling it all together, because it seemed like the rules changed every day because a drive-in concert was so new for everybody. “I just want to be on stage and play for these people, have worship time, and engage everyone in a live experience. I’ve tried to stay focused on that while my management team worked 12-13 hours a day to figure it out.”
“Open the Eyes of My Heart” was the show opener, and Smith continued through hits and fan favorites including “Sky Spills Over, “ “Place In This World,” “A Million Lights,” “Miracles,” “Great Are You Lord” and “Agnus Dei.”
One of the favorites of the evening was his current number one hit, “Waymaker,” which has held down the top spot on the “Billboard” Airplay Chart for three weeks. While the song sounds like it could have been planned to be out during these trying times, Smith says he heard the song two years ago.
“My daughter introduced me to this song and when she played it for me, I was “Wow, this is a great song. So I recorded it for a record we did at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. I knew it was special because of the way the people reacted to it that night.
“I didn’t plan to release it as a single but I had radio guys telling me that I needed to do a radio version because they thought the song could be huge. Little did I know it would peak during this unprecedented time we are going through. It’s just been crazy.”
Being off the road has proved a very productive time for Smith, who says he has always had a hard time writing on the road. “I’ve just been more creative, been writing songs, it’s been incredible,” he says. “I set my studio up in the guest house. I kind of like being home, with my studio eight minutes away and the farm 20 minutes. I can’t get the new songs recorded fast enough. It has been good. I’m grateful and hopefully the creative juices will continue to flow.”
Another thing that has continued through the COVID-19 crisis is Rocketown, a vision of Smith’s for kids that needed a place to go and not be on the street. It has been open since 1994 in a warehouse in Cool Springs. After moving several times Rocketown has now settled in a huge space for kids to gather and feel safe in downtown Nashville. While it had to be closed for the first part of the pandemic, it is now open again. Smith described it as a youth facility, a safe place for kids, with a music venue, dance studio, music studio, counseling services and other activities that could help kids who are going through hard times.
“The kids who come to Rocketown are going through dark times, some abusive households and other circumstances,” Smith said. “We just love the kids and they keep coming back. Nobody judges them, they are loved wherever they are at in life, and they feel welcome at the facility.”
Smith thinks the drive-in concerts will be the tour venues of the summer, and he hopes he will be among the artists who will be taking his music to the fans in that way.
“I think some dates will come together later this summer,” Smith shares. “I know people are trying to get creative in the way they bring the music to their fans, and as things open up I think this will be the way to do that. We must get out and live life. We cannot stay in the state we’re in for the rest of our lives.
“I’ve not been rattled by all of this. My heart goes out to people who have lost jobs. We at the Smith household are good. I’ve learned about myself a lot, I’m content, I don’t need anything. It’s been a big awakening for me, and somewhat different tied down to house and studio.”
Smith closed his show in Franklin with “Friends,” noting to the audience that he felt it was an appropriate song to end his first live show after being off the road for two months because he knew everyone was among friends. It was a favorite with the fans, who responded with a “standing ovation” by bringing out their cameras with their flashlight apps on and honking their horns loud and long. It could not have been a better return to the stage for Smith or a better return to live music for his fans.
The singer will continue his drive-in concerts with a brand new tour featuring his friends Steven Curtis Chapman and Mac Powell. The trio will complete a 10-city Drive-In Theater Tour beginning July 16 at the Stardust Drive-In in Watertown, Tennessee.
“I’m so looking forward to performing again, and I’m excited about the uniqueness of the Drive-In settings,” says Smith. “I think it will be something we always remember about this time, what a unique opportunity we have to make history here. I can’t wait to hang with my friends Steven Curtis Chapman, and Mac Powell. I think we’re putting together a very special night, and thanks to Awakening Events for blazing a trail with us!”
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be with 2 great friends and amazing artists makin’ music and singing about the Truth…again… TOGETHER…finally!” adds Chapman
Powell, lead singer of the former band THIRD DAY, agrees. “I jumped at the opportunity to play some drive-in theaters with Michael and Steven this summer. I think everyone is ready to get back to what we love doing but in a safe way. I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with my good friends this July!”
Here is the complete line-up of dates:
July 16 Watertown, TN, Stardust Drive-in Theatre
July 17 Athens, TN, Swingin’ Midway Drive-in
July 19 Henderson, NC, Raleigh Road Outdoor Theatre
July 20 Hadensville, VA, Goochland Drive-In Theater
July 21 Stephens City, VA, The Family Drive in Theatre
July 24 Camden, TN, Birdsong Drive-in
July 25 Iuka, MS, Iuka Drive-in
July 26 Centerville, TN, Pink Cadillac Drive-in
July 28 Maryville, TN, Parkway Drive-in
July 29 Estill Springs, TN, Montana Drive-in Theater