MercyMe guitarist tells of band’s humble beginnings, surprise of ‘I Can Only Imagine’ success

By Tracy Riggs
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

MercyMe, whose hit song “I Can Only Imagine” was the focus of a 2018 feature film of the same name, will be in concert Oct. 17 at the BJCC’s Legacy Arena. It is one of the stops on their “Imagine Nation” tour with Crowder and Micah Tyler.

MercyMe guitarist Mike Scheuchzer said the song the band is perhaps best known for was not one they recognized immediately as a hit. In fact Scheuchzer said in an interview with The Alabama Baptist, the song “I Can Only Imagine” was included on MercyMe’s album “The Worship Project” primarily as “therapy” for lead singer Bart Millard. 

‘Changed our lives’

“We were working on an independent record of ours,” Scheuchzer said. “We had nine songs that we felt were ready to go but we felt that it was ripping people off to sell an album for $10 and only have nine songs on it.”  

The band was preparing to load up to go to a show when keyboardist Jim Bryson sat down at the piano and started “goofing off,” as Scheuchzer put it. 

“He played the now-famous opening lick and Bart was like, ‘Wait. What was that?’” Scheuchzer said. 

Millard started singing the song he had been living with for years, his song about his dad’s death. The band followed along and added music. “I Can Only Imagine” became the 10th song on the album and then was practically forgotten, according to Scheuchzer.

“We never played it for probably eight months after that,” he said. 

Everything changed at a youth camp where the song was requested. 

“We were like, ‘Yeah, uh, give us a minute,’” Scheuchzer said. “We had to try to remember what key it was in and how to play it. We played it that night and we’ve played it every night since. We thought we had a pulse on what people wanted from us and we had no clue. We went eight months without playing that song. All of a sudden we were playing it and it changed our lives.”

The Birmingham-based filmmaking team of Andrew and Jon Erwin brought the song’s story to the big screen. The film is one of the top grossing Christian films of all time and won “Inspirational Film of the Year” at the 2018 Dove Awards. It is also the fourth top-grossing music biopic, according to The Wrap. The song “I Can Only Imagine” has topped both Christian and mainstream charts. 

The success of the song and the film has given MercyMe a platform to share the message that “God is real. Jesus is real. He loves you even though you’re messed up. And we know because we are messed up,” Scheuchzer said.

“The Bible is really clear that getting it right is not what saves us. If it was then Jesus wouldn’t have had to die on a cross. That’s really hard to reconcile because we want to fix things. We are just constantly reminding people that they are loved just the way they are.”

It’s a lesson the band members learned as they grew from humble beginnings, Scheuchzer said.

“We were kids. We didn’t know any better. We were just [playing music] because it was fun. We were willing to not make any money just to get to play music and chase a dream,” he said.

The first two years MercyMe members supplemented their income with odd jobs. Scheuchzer worked at Blockbuster Video. Millard had income from his dad’s pension and concentrated on bookings and promotion. 

“We played anywhere that would have us. It was a joke based in truth that we would play for Taco Bell and directions home. We were saying yes to every opportunity that we were given, no matter how small or weird.” 

With the attitude of “treat this show as if it was the most important show we’ve ever played,” MercyMe even played for a homeschool graduation with only one graduate. Scheuchzer said the family paid them but “[it] wasn’t a lot. We got casseroles and graduation cake. It was one of the best gigs we did that year.”

‘Weird and awesome’

Early on the band didn’t know how to deal with conflict and could be “jerks to one another,” Scheuchzer said. They would fight it out verbally, hug and then go back to being best friends. 

Through the years the band members have learned to give each other space and Scheuchzer said he’s very fortunate to be doing what he loves with people he loves. 

“It’s not just like a 25-year job,” he said. “It’s 25 years of living together. It’s a weird and awesome thing we have.”

EDITOR’S NOTE — Click here to listen to more of the interview with Scheuchzer.