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Michael W. Smith celebrates Christmas with original songs

FRANKLIN, Tenn. - Christmas came early when Michael W. Smith was a kid. It started as soon as September, when his family broke out the holiday tunes by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand and Andy Williams.

'The Andy Williams Christmas album is still one of my favorites. All of those records had big orchestras on them,' Smith recalled recently as he sat beside a large console at his recording studio.

So when the contemporary gospel singer set out to make his own holiday album, he naturally went for that same lush sound, using a 67-piece orchestra and four choirs for 'Michael W. Smith, It's a Wonderful Christmas.'

Smith wrote or co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs and recorded them at London's Abbey Road Studios, best known for the Beatles albums but also where dozens of orchestral film scores were recorded.

The music is cinematic, building and swelling before dropping to a hush.

Smith, who looks about 10 years younger than his age of 50, seems an eternally busy fellow. Besides his music, he acts and produces movies, writes inspirational books, started a record label and a teen center, co-pastors a 400-member nondenominational church and does charity and mission work. He and his wife, Debbie, have five children.

'Michael does a great job multitasking,' said fellow gospel singer Amy Grant, who helped him launch his solo career in the early '80s. 'He's really an initiator, and I think that's why he's involved in a lot of things. He has a lot of creative ideas, and then because he's done well he has the financial resources to start something.'

Smith didn't plan to put out a collection of original holiday music in the album released this fall. He wanted to mix traditional carols like 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' with some of his own tunes, but once he started writing he got on a roll.

'I just kept writing things that I felt were really, really strong. Then I thought, 'Well, why not?' he said.

This is Smith's third Christmas album but the first where he's written most of the songs.

'I'm such a big Christmas music fan. It's nostalgic for me. We have a very, very close family. It's all about family and friends and food and people over - all these wonderful memories of my childhood.'

This month he's performing the new music on tour, using local orchestras at each stop. Typically, he'll arrive in town and rehearse a couple of hours with the musicians, take a break and then do the show.

Smith is an old hand at this. Since his 1983 debut, he's sold about 15 million albums and had 31 No. 1 hits, occasionally crossing over to the mainstream charts with pop songs like 'Place in This World.'

He's become one of the most popular stars in contemporary gospel and made some high-profile friends along the way, such as both Presidents Bush - he refers to them as '41' and '43' - and U2's Bono, with whom he's worked to fight AIDS in Africa.

His debut album, 'The Michael W. Smith Project,' was nominated for a Grammy award. He's been nominated 12 more times - including this month for pop/contemporary gospel album for 'Stand' - and won three. He's also won 40 Dove Awards, the annual honors from the Gospel Music Association.

But despite his success in gospel, Smith worries he's not doing enough to influence mainstream culture. When he was reaching the pop charts in the '90s, he said, he loved it because he felt like he was 'a light bulb in a dark room.'

'I think about it a lot. 'What am I doing with my life, and am I doing the right thing?' Smith says.

He pauses a moment and adds, 'I do feel like the success I've had has given me a platform to try to let people know what's really important in life. If you're not feeding the poor, not looking out for the troubled kid on the block, not giving yourself away, you've totally missed it.'