Now re-popularized by a new movie of the same name, the uplifting ballad continues to be the trademark of singer Bart Millard and his band MercyMe.
"It's like the song that won't go away," smiled Nathan Cochran, bass guitar player of the band during an interview from Dallas, Tex. "But it's a song that is really special to us and we're not complaining about that at all." (MercyMe comes to Van Andel Arena April 8 for a concert – details below).
The film, which debuted in theatres March 16, is essentially a Millard biopic – telling the story of a young Bart growing up with an abusive father. The redemptive tale of their restored relationship - and then his father's succumbing to cancer - led Bart to write the song. In it he imagines what heaven will be like in the presence of a loving and redeeming God.
Singer-actor J. Michael Finley portrays the singer (watch the trailer). Early reports show the film doing well at the box office. Cinemablend.com reported that the film grossed more than $17 million its first weekend in theatres, third highest overall. That despite the fact that it was shown on only half the number of screens as "Black Panther" and "Tomb Raider," the two films that ranked above it..
STEPPING BACK INTO THE PAST
Millard wrote the song before MercyMe had a national following, but some music from the upstart Texas band was already circulating around Nashville. Amy Grant had the song "on hold" to record herself, but admired the song so much that she told Millard he and his band should be the ones to record it. (Grant later did a version on her "Legacy..." album).
MercyMe placed it on their major label debut in 2001 and the following year it won a Dove Award as Song of the Year. Then mainstream radio "discovered" it and it became a national hit.
"Early on we could tell it was special," said Cochran. "It's a song that's gonna outlive us and what we do as a band – something to look forward to and look back on at the same time."
The band re-recorded the song in connection with the new movie. "We really didn't have a desire to do it again," Cochran said. "But when the idea came up of having someone else re-do it, we thought.....why not do it ourselves?"
Noting that Millard and the band are in a different place now than when the song was originally written, they decided to do a more "upbeat take" on the haunting ballad. "We tried to make it a little more joyful and triumphant, if you can put it that way," he said. "We've been performing it that way live, and it's been great."
IN A WHIRLWIND
The month of March has been extra busy for the band. They attended a March 4 film premier in Nashville, walking the red carpet and meeting several of the actors. The band performed the song live on network TV ("Fox & Friends"). And they did a flurry of media interviews and appearances coinciding with release of the film and their new greatest hits album "I Can Only Imagine: The Very Best of MercyMe." The newer version of "Imagine" is on the disc, as well as past hits such as "Homesick," "Here With Me" and "Dear Younger Me."
Then the band jumped back on the tour bus, continuing its concert tour with Tenth Avenue North.
UP FRONT AND PERSONAL
Millard has long been the face of MercyMe and with the film and his memoir/book (released in February), the lead singer has been in the limelight more than ever.
"The thing about bands is, you've got to have at least one guy that the audience can trust and invest themselves in," Cochran offered. "And for the most part the songs we've written come from life experiences, and Bart has been real open and vulnerable with sharing what he's gone through."
Cochran said band members knew of their lead singer's history with his father long before Millard went public with the story a number of years ago.
"A band is like a second family – we know each other and know about our pasts," said Cochran, who joined the band in 1998. "A lot of attention gets thrust upon Bart, but we honestly feel a lot of times we're here to prop him up and make sure he's where he needs to be.
"We feel like God is just moving us around from place to place, and we're trying to pay attention to that regardless of who happens to be in the spotlight at the moment."
MercyMe, with special guests Tenth Avenue North and Tim Timmons
6pm Sunday April 8 at Van Andel Arena, W. Fulton St. Grand Rapids
Tickets range from $21.50 to $77.50, available via Ticketmaster outlets, online