There are many tales of hit songs that almost didn’t see the light of day. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” “Kiss” from Prince and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” were each last-second adds to their respective albums.
The same goes for MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine.” When the Christian rock band — performing Friday (6/15) at McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids — was recording 1999’s “The Worship Project,” the group needed one more song.
“We never thought ‘I Can Only Imagine’ would become a hit,” guitarist Michael Scheuchzer said by phone from his Nashville home. “We needed a tune and (vocalist) Bart (Millard) was always scribbling that phrase, ‘I can only imagine,’ in his notebook. He doodled it all over the place. He wrote the song and we tossed it in at the last second. I never thought it would connect with our audience. It shows that I don’t know our audience very well.”
“I Can Only Imagine” became the band’s breakthrough single and the first Christian song to reach double platinum status.
“Our fans just love that song,” Scheuchzer said. ‘There has been no stopping ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ which is awesome.”
“I Can Only Imagine” has become the best-selling Christian single of all-time — and has taken on a life of its own. The song inspired the film of the same name, which hit screens around the country in March and still is playing in Cedar Rapids.
It stars Dennis Quaid as Millard’s dad, who was transformed from an abusive beast to a kind, empathetic father, eventually succumbing to cancer.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
“When Bart was at his dad’s gravesite, his grandmother said, ‘I can only imagine what your dad is thinking if he could see you now,’” Scheuchzer said. “It’s an amazing story but I never thought (the song) would turn into a movie. About eight years ago, Bart was approached about turning the song into a movie. Bart never took it that seriously. But every year he would get a call about turning the song into a movie. Two years ago it became real.”
The production stressed out the band.
“We were really worried about the band because Bart was being pulled in so many different directions,” Scheuchzer said. “But it all worked out.”
The film has plenty of openly Christian elements, which mirrors MercyMe’s music. The band has no problem letting the world know about its faith. However, some similar bands, such as needtobreathe and Switchfoot have plenty of religious imagery in their songs but don’t wave the Christian flag.
“I don’t begrudge anyone who has a different approach from us,” Scheuchzer said. “I love needtobreathe’s music. It’s so apparent how much of the gospel is in their music. That’s wonderful. But they’re in more of the general market than we are. It’s the same thing for Switchfoot.”
MercyMe, which includes guitarist Barry Graul, bassist Nathan Cochran and percussionist Robby Shaffer, has sold millions of albums, won eight Dove Awards and is one of the most successful Christian rock bands of all time.
Cedar Rapids has been one of MercyMe’s most supportive cities, he said. “Cedar Rapids is one of the first cities we played when we were trying to break out of Texas. We had never been above Arkansas ... We were with Shepherds Ministries and the response was great, considering we were a young, new band. It gave us so much confidence.”
WHAT: MercyMe, with Jeremy Camp opening
WHERE: McGrath Amphitheatre, 475 First St. SW, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday (6/15)
TICKETS: $25 to $90, U.S. Cellular Center Box Office, 1-(800) 745-3000 or Mcgrathamphitheatre.com/events/