The members of MercyMe teamed up nearly 10 years ago, but the Christian band flew under the national radar screen until its stirring ballad, "I Can Only Imagine," hit the airwaves in August, 2001.
That song, imagining what heaven is like, not only topped the Christian charts but shot to No. 1 on the mainstream Billboard singles chart and stayed there for 10 straight weeks.
"I Can Only Imagine" crossed over from the Christian sales charts to adult contemporary, Top 40, and then country, and the album on which it appeared, "Almost There," remained on Billboard's mainstream album chart for more than 100 weeks.
MercyMe, which will be in concert near Detroit on Tuesday on the One Nation Tour with Michael W. Smith and the David Crowder Band, believed "Imagine" was a good song but they never imagined it would become such a sensation.
"We knew we had something special but I don't think we could have ever seen what would happen with it," bassist Nathan Cochran said in an interview this week.
The song was written by MercyMe's lead singer Bart Millard after the death of his father, offering a look at the loss from a heavenly perspective. In a soulful baritone, Millard sings of the joy and awe a Christian must feel when leaving this world and meeting Jesus face to face.
"When my father died of cancer in 1991, he left me with the assurance that he was headed to a better place," Millard said in the band's press kit. "He used to always tell me that I was getting the raw end of the deal because I had to stick around here.
"For several years following his death, I would find myself writing the phrase 'I can only imagine' on anything I could find. That simple phrase would give me a peace and a hope thinking about what my dad was finally experiencing."
Cochran said he and Millard and the rest of the band at the time - guitarist Mike Scheuchzer, drummer Robby Shaffer, and keyboardist Jim
Bryson - did not even release the song as a single the first time around.
"We kind of treated it as a 'b side' on that album, and didn't play it live for a couple of months. Then we played it at a camp, and it went over so well, we've played it every night since."
MercyMe, which hails from Greenville, Texas, first released "Imagine" on a compilation of worship songs, and it first appeared on the airwaves when a disc jockey in Birmingham, Ala., gave it a spin, Cochran said. The station's phone lines lit up with people wanting to know about the band.
The same thing happened in Spokane, Wash., long before MercyMe had ever played there - or anywhere close to that city, Cochran said.
"I Can Only Imagine" won three 2002 Dove Awards, including Song of the Year.
On its sophomore album, "Spoken For," MercyMe proved that it was not just a one-hit wonder. The title song and "Word of God Speak" both hit the top of the Christian charts, and MercyMe won Dove Awards this year for Artist of the Year and Group of the Year.
Last year the group added a second guitarist, Barry Graul, who gives the band's newest disc, "Undone," an edgier sound.
"Barry is amazing guitar player, one of the best in the country, and he's a great songwriter," Cochran said. "He adds a whole 'nother element. He definitely adds more spice and flavor to the mix."
Cochran said the musicians spent more time and money recording "Undone," but did not feel any pressure to try to come up with another mainstream hit.
"We're obviously a Christian band and that's what we sing about," Cochran said. "We wanted to make doubly sure that we are sticking with what we've said all the time. We're not changing the message. Being a Christian band and singing what we're singing about is what got us here in the first place. Why would we ever change?"
The One Nation Tour with Michael W. Smith, MercyMe, and the David Crowder Band comes to the DTE Energy Music Theatre, 7774 Sashabaw Rd., Clarkston, Mich., at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $19.50 general admission, and $38.50 for reserved seats, from all Ticketmaster outlets. Information: 1-248-377-0100.