Michael attended college at Marshall University in West Virginia but after one semester dropped out to move to Nashville and pursue a career in music. (side note trivia: In 1992 Michael received an honorary Doctorate of Music degree from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, West Virginia.)
The years 1979-1981 are best written by Michael himself in his book It’s Time To Be Bold. From chapter 1, we read:
While playing keyboards for the group Higher Ground, I signed my first songwriting contract with Paragon/Benson Publishing Company. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was knocking down $200 a week to do something that I loved. Writing songs for a living meant that I didn’t have to wait tables anymore, or work at Coca-Cola, or plant shrubs with a landscaping company.
I thought my life had peaked and God didn’t have to do anything else for me. I wasn’t looking for a record deal, a higher salary, or even a girlfriend – and especially not a wife. Writing music, I was as content as I’d ever been, and I labored at it sixteen hours a day. Then one afternoon while I was working in my office, Deborah Kay Davis walked by.
I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. When she passed by, it was all over for me. I was blown away. Totally head over heels in love. I frantically picked up the phone and called my mother in West Virginia.
"Mom, I can’t believe it. You’re not going to believe this, Mom. I just saw the girl I’m going to marry.
"What’s her name?"
"I don’t know, Mom. I haven’t met her yet. But I gotta go. I’ll find out and call you back."
My poor mother! She must have thought I’d lost my mind. But I’d never been so clearheaded in my life.
I left my office and went searching for this girl in the warehouse. Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have done a better job of tracking her down, and eventually I found myself standing outside the ladies’ restroom, waiting for her to emerge. She walked out. I introduced myself. We were engaged three and a half weeks later – and married four months after that!
In 1982, Michael was asked to play keyboards in a band that was backing up young artist Amy Grant. He also continued to write songs for himself.
The story goes that Amy’s managers, Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell could not find a Christian record label that would sign Michael or a young New Yorker named Kathy Troccoli. Believing so much in these two young talents, they started Reunion Records.
Michael made his very first record in 1983 and it was called “Michael W. Smith Project.” Michael wrote all the music and wife Debbie wrote the lyrics. The now famous song “Friends” debuted on this album. Michael continued to tour with Amy, now as her opening act.