Christian rock group
The song that propelled MercyMe to the top of the Christian music world and to wide crossover popularity consisted mostly of a series of questions. Lead vocalist Bart Millard reflected on what it would be like to meet Jesus face to face in heaven. "Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel?" he asked. "Will I dance for you, Jesus, or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all?" Millard's own answer to those questions, "I can only imagine," became the hook to MercyMe's most successful song. "I have faith that Christ is real," Millard told Christian Reader. "Therefore, I ask him questions."
It was Millard's personal odyssey that lay at the center of MercyMe's music. Growing up in Greenville, Texas, he wasn't particularly musical. And though the family attended church regularly, his home life was anything but stable. He feared his father, Arthur, an often angry man. "It was a pretty dysfunctional family," he told Eyder Peralta of the Florida Times Union. "It's weird, because no matter how bad the home life was, you always went to church. It was almost like putting on a mask or something." His parents divorced when he was young, and he pursued sports as an outlet for his energy.
Millard liked the music of 1970s rock bands Kiss and the Electric Light Orchestra, and when he was about 13 he began to share with many other Christian teens an enthusiasm for the popular Christian rock stars Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith. Performing music himself, however, never crossed his mind until he broke both his ankles on the football field and was forced to join his school choir because it was the only elective activity he could schedule. He complained about the situation, but music leaders in school and in his church noticed that he could sing well.
After his father was diagnosed with cancer, Millard's life was profoundly altered. His father embraced his Christian faith more fully and made peace with his family. "His heart completely changed and that completely changed our home life," Millard told Richard Vara of the Houston Chronicle. He was hit hard by his father's death, which occurred when he 18 years old and a freshman at East Texas State University.
A youth pastor at Millard's church felt that music might help the young man deal with his loss, and he invited Millard to move to Lakeland, Florida, to work with young people at a church that featured a band playing music in the then-quite-new praise and worship style—upbeat, participatory music played by a band and lightly infused with the beats of rock. Millard enjoyed the work and the interaction with other young Christian musicians. In 1994 he went on a missionary trip to Europe, leading worship groups composed of the children of United States military personnel. Another member of the mission was future MercyMe keyboardist Jim Bryson.
The reactions of the young audiences for whom Millard and Bryson performed made him begin to think seriously about a musical career. He and Bryson joined forces with guitarist Mike Scheuchzer from Millard's church in Florida, and by 1995 they had added bassist Nathan Cochran and drummer Robby Shaffer, to form MercyMe. The name, Millard told Vara, came from his grandmother's evaluation of his new career: "Mercy me, why don't you get a real job?" she asked.
The band started slowly, performing mostly at churches as they traveled around the country from their new home base in Oklahoma City. They took their career to the next level when they moved to Nashville for a year and immersed themselves in techniques of music production. Investing in a home studio, they released a series of CDs independently and toured as an opening act for the band Audio Adrenaline. As they gained a following, sales rose from 1,000 copies for their debut release to 50,000 for The Worship Project, released around 2000.
That album contained "I Can Just Imagine," a song that Millard wrote in ten minutes but that actually had a much longer genesis. After his father's death, friends and relatives had tried to comfort Millard by telling him that his father was happy in heaven. Millard wondered what heavenly joys could compare with those that could be experienced on earth. He found that repeating the phrase "I can only imagine" brought him comfort, and he began writing it down repeatedly, on whatever scrap of paper he had on hand. Several years later, working on songs for The Worship Project, he found the phrase in an old notebook, and the rest of the song sprang quickly to life around it.
For the Record . . .
Members include James Bryson , keyboards; Nathan Cochran , bass; Barry Graul (joined group, 2003), guitar; Bart Millard , vocals, songwriter; Michael Scheuchzer , guitar; Robin (Robby) Shaffer , drums.
Group formed in Florida after Bart Millard and Jim Bryson performed together at worship ceremonies for U.S. military personnel in Europe, 1995; moved to Oklahoma City, and then to Texas; recorded The Worship Project, containing song "I Can Only Imagine," c. 2000; signed to INO label; released Almost There, 2001; released Spoken For, 2002; released Undone, 2004.
Awards: Dove Awards, Song of the Year for "I Can Only Imagine," 2002; Artist of the Year, 2004; Group of the Year, 2004; Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year for "Word of God Speak," 2004.
Addresses: Record company—INO Records, 210 Jamestown Park, Ste. 100, Brentwood, TN 37207. Website—MercyMe Official Website: http://www.mercyme.org.
A variety of factors propelled "I Can Just Imagine" to pop hit status. One, Bryson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was the impact of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "Ever since 9/11, there have been so many people searching for something, whether it's religion or the basic meaning of life," he said. The Worship Project grew in popularity to the point where the group couldn't handle the shipping chores necessary to keep up with its sales, and MercyMe signed with the large INO label outside Nashville. "I Can Just Imagine" was reissued on MercyMe's INO debut, Almost There, in 2001, and it continued to grow as a phenomenon. After the album appeared, a Dallas radio station that played pop and hip-hop hits, but which also included a segment in which listeners could request atypical content, honored a request for "I Can Just Imagine." Its phone lines were flooded with requests for the song, and "I Can Just Imagine" spent several months on Billboard 's top 200 list of pop singles. The song also garnered substantial airplay on country stations.
MercyMe won a Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association in 2002, with "I Can Just Imagine" garnering Song of the Year. The group toured heavily but worked slowly on new music after Almost There, hoping to avoid one-hit wonder status. Spoken For, which came out in late 2002, cracked Billboard 's top 200, along with Almost There in 2003, as pop fans discovered the band, and it brought MercyMe more Dove Awards, this time for Artist of the Year and Group of the Year in 2004.
For their third major label album, Undone, MercyMe branched out in new directions. They added a guitarist, Barry Graul, to the band, and they incorporated a new range of pop influences, notably the melodically rich, string-powered music of the phenomenally popular rock band Coldplay. Jenny Williams of Entertainment Weekly noted that the album "carefully balances unabashedly holy sentiments with lyrics that could be alluding to a new love just as easily as to God." Once again Millard drew on personal tragedies in his song-writing; nine of his friends and family members died between December of 2003 and March of 2004, and the album focused on the question of responding to the deaths of loved ones.
Undone became the most successful album of MercyMe's career, dispelling any notion that the success of "I Can Only Imagine" was a one-time fluke. Although some Christian reviewers faulted the album for a lack of depth, it topped Christian music charts and rose to number 12 on Billboard 's pop top 200—rare territory for a Christian album. With a Christmas album due in the fall of 2005 and a solo disc of hymns from Millard in the works, MercyMe was riding high. They continued, however, to put their Christian faith at the center of their efforts. "We're definitely trying to be the best musicians we can and put out the best 'product' that we can, if you want to say it that way," Cochran told the Grand Rapids Press. "But if people's lives aren't being affected and aren't being pointed to Christ, then we really haven't done our job."
The Worship Project, ca. 2000.
Almost There, INO, 2001.
Spoken For, INO, 2002.
Undone, INO, 2004.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 8, 2004, p. C1.
Christian Reader, March-April 2003, p. 16.
Dayton Daily News (Dayton, OH), March 5, 2004, p. 4.
Entertainment Weekly, May 28, 2004, p. 124.
Florida Times-Union, February 6, 2004, p. WE-15.
Grand Rapids Press, February 13, 2005, p. C5.
Houston Chronicle, April 19, 2003, p. 1.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 30, 2004, p. 6.
"MercyMe," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 1, 2005).
MercyMe Official Website, http://www.mercyme.org (July 1, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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