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Band's faith pays off

MercyMe's 'I Can Only Imagine' doesn't hide its Christian message, but that hasn't stopped it from showing up on mainstream playlists.

June 27, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

He has tried to imagine what heaven will be like, but contemporary Christian singer Bart Millard could not have dreamed up this -- his band joining Christina Aguilera and 50 Cent on the pop charts.

"I Can Only Imagine," which he recorded with the band MercyMe, reflects the singer's musings about how he would deal with the afterlife, and may be the most overtly religious song to hit the Top 40 since 1974. That year an Australian nun, Sister Janet Mead, sang the Lord's Prayer and sold 2 million copies worldwide, peaking at No. 4 on the U.S. pop charts. In the past couple of months, Dallas-based MercyMe has been climbing up the playlists of adult contemporary stations nationwide, reaching No. 19 this week, according to the trade magazine Radio & Records.

And just this week they also cracked the magazine's Top 40 pop chart, reaching No. 39 -- sandwiched between Nelly and Third Eye Blind.

"This is kind of uncharted territory for us," Millard said. "It's hard to explain why it's doing what it's doing. We would always joke around about the top five songs never to cross over," and "I Can Only Imagine" was on that list, he said.

Though several artists with their roots in Christian music have traversed to mainstream success -- from pop songstress Amy Grant to hard rock's P.O.D. -- the songs that carried them to the other side mostly dealt with faith metaphorically, if at all. Sixpence None the Richer had a Top 5 hit in 1999 with the breezy love song "Kiss Me," while Grant's mainstream breakthrough in 1991, "Baby Baby," was not about the Nativity.


Overt message

There's little mistaking what Millard is talking about, though: "Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? / 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? / I can only imagine."

"The song is so overt, when it crossed over to the mainstream, it really shocked me," said Chuck Tyler, program director of KFSH-FM (95.9), the contemporary Christian station based in Glendale.

The song had already been a phenomenon in the world of Christian music. It won the genre's top prize, the Dove Award, as 2002's song of the year and contemporary/pop song of the year, and Millard won songwriter of the year for the tune.

"It was just huge," Tyler said. "It just built and built and built and just exploded for us."

The song was from the band's first album, "Almost There," released in August 2001, and they were already supporting their October 2002 album, "Spoken For," when "Imagine" found new life. The mainstream groundswell began earlier this year, when the morning hosts at KRBV-FM in Dallas succumbed to a listener's constant pleas and played the song. Millard said it was mainly "to prove to the lady it didn't belong on the station."


Requests pour in

But listeners jammed the request lines the rest of the day, and "I Can Only Imagine" soon became a staple on the station. The band's small Christian label, INO Records, teamed with the larger Curb Records to promote the song nationally, and other mainstream stations began picking it up. It was the top request at Nashville's WRVR every day for two months, and has also been a hit at pop stations in Orlando and Tallahassee, Fla.; Atlanta; Minneapolis; Phoenix; Denver; and Portland, Ore.

"We're now making inroads on the coasts. We think New York and L.A. will be the last markets to fall," said Bob Catania, Curb's vice president of pop promotions. "A lot of them are very skeptical. A lot of them are scared to death of that explicit message."

He encourages programmers to call other stations who have already had success with the record, and tells them, "It only takes one spin."

"When the stations played it one time, the phones would go crazy, the e-mails would go crazy, and we'd get the add [to the station's playlist]," he said.

Millard said part of the song's success may be because it sounds so different from what surrounds it on the airwaves.

"It's so foreign. With so much stuff being profane or about sex, when this song plays, it totally reprograms your mind for, like, five minutes," he said.

The song arose from the death of Millard's father from cancer in 1991, when the singer was 18. The lyrics reflect the sentiment that sustained him during that time, though they weren't set to music until 1999.

"There's so many people who have lost loved ones, and whether you're Christian or not, or go to church or not, you wonder what's after this. All of a sudden, we're all the same," Millard said. "Deep down we all want to be part of something bigger. Maybe this brings a little hope."

Catania added, "Who hasn't lost somebody? And what we're finding is this song, in amongst all the booty and party songs out there, is reaching an audience that is not the traditional active radio audience."

And the song may yet find an even broader public: Country artist Jeff Carson has recorded a version that's now climbing up country-music charts.

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