The award-winning ballad, picturing what it might be like to see a departed father in heaven, soared to the top of both the Christian and mainstream music charts. It was a turning point for the upstart band, establishing a solid recording and performing career that has continued with this year's collection "inhale/exhale" and a new tour. (The tour comes to Grand Rapids Nov. 5 – see details below).
But the inspirational-pop band still lives with the echo from its "imagine" ballad of two decades ago.
"That's certainly a song that is larger than us and that people have taken ownership of," said bassist Nathan Cochran during a recent interview. "It's amazing that we will have that kind of legacy song that will outlive us as a band."
"I Can Only Imagine," written by lead singer Bart Millard after his father's death, spawned the 2018 biographical hit movie of the same name, providing another boost for both the song and the band.
Here's MercyMe's latest version of its signature song, recorded this year.
IMAGINING THE NEW
But now the band has a new tour with new music. The diverse "inhale/exhale" album has several innovative musical approaches – partly as a result of extra time spent in their own rural Tennessee cabin/studio during the height of the pandemic.
"We had the chance to experiment a bit," said Cochran, 43. "We did things like recording demo parts onto our phones or iPads and putting them on the record."
They welcomed singer Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts to add vocals on one of the new songs ("A Little Love"). And the disco-slanted "Brand New" features the disco queen herself, Gloria Gaynor.
Seven different producers were in on the project.
"We like so many different aspects of musical styles and sounds," Cochran ventured. "But we joke that we have this 'MercyMe filter' - no matter what we do kind of still ends up sounding like MercyMe."
He pointed to the song "Blessed" as a great example of creating newer sounds for "something sonically for everyone to hear."
So far on the tour they've been performing the better-known "Say I Won't" which was the album's first radio hit. But through at least 10 studio albums and numerous side-projects, the band has a deep catalog from which to draw. Fans still request previous top hits such as "Word of God Speak," "Here With Me" and "Even If."
Cochran has worked on several side projects during his MercyMe years, at least one under the band name Diving Blind. He released several songs on an EP project. "To be honest, I wasn't super passionate about it, and it wasn't worth the extra time away from my family (with five children) to make it happen," he said of his individual pursuits. "MercyMe keeps us all so busy."
Cochran's musical 19 year-old son William plays the drums. And he's friends with Millard's son Sam Wesley, who co-wrote one of the MercyMe's new songs. "They're actually playing a little bit for us on the tour," Cochran said "So you've got this next generation thing coming up."
THEIR SPIRITUAL ROLES
MercyMe carries the mantle of many faith-based bands. Fans look to them for spiritual encouragement - some even seek life advice and counsel through social media and at concerts.
"There are times it feels like a pastoral role more than it probably should," Cochran said of their artistry platform. "Yes, some of our songs have ministered to people and helped them through tough times.
"But what I tell people is: we're just musicians. That's how we make our living and people pay for tickets to see us. It's just that we choose to write songs about our relationship with Christ."
Cochran said it's impossible for band members to be accountable to fans in a spiritual relationship. MercyMe fans should rely on family and church connections for that kind of commitment.
"When you have songs that inspire others, there's kind of an expectation on you and you start to feel a little responsible for that. We can't be the Holy Spirit for people. But hopefully we're pointing them toward Christ and that's all we can really ask for."
Bonus video: "Blessed," a song from MercyMe's new album...
MercyMe with special guest Micah Tyler
Fri. Nov. 5, 2021 (doors open at 7pm)
at Van Andel Arena, 130 W. Fulton St. Grand Rapids
Tickets $24.75 to $78.50 (some verified resale tickets may be higher)
https://www.ticketmaster.com/mercyme-tickets/artist/873854 or call 800-745-3000.