April 2001 – Ryman Auditorium – Nashville, Tennessee: Bart stood backstage at the historic auditorium. One of his Christian music heroes, Amy Grant, was singing his song, I Can Only Imagine. After singing the chorus, she called him on stage to sing the song with her. After what Bart had been through, Amy Grant, this night and this place were beyond his wildest dreams. This is the story behind the song.
Bart Millard was born in 1972 in Greenville, Texas. His father, Arthur, was once a promising football star at Southern Methodist University, but he quit his dream to come home. When Bart was 3, Arthur was hit by a truck while working as a flagman for the state highway department. He was unconscious for eight weeks.
The accident changed Arthur from a teddy bear daddy into a grizzly. Tired of his explosive anger and abuse, his wife Adele left Arthur a couple years later. For the next dozen years, Bart was back and forth between his mother and father and the object of his father’s rage. Arthur beat Bart with a paddle or a razor strap. On several occasions, severe beatings kept him out of school.
First Baptist Church in Greenville provided an escape for Bart. He loved music and sang in the youth choir. He bought his first music cassette in the 7th grade – a collection of Amy Grant worship songs. His father smashed it in a fit of anger.
When Bart was 15, his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The 4-year struggle drove Arthur to God and away from his violent anger. On his deathbed, Arthur encouraged Bart. “You have a real gift, Bart. God has a plan for your singing.” Through the tears, he said, “Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from chasing your dream. Promise me.”
Arthur died in 1987 when Bart was 19. At the graveside, Bart’s grandmother commented to him, “I can only imagine what your daddy must be seeing now.” The words, I can only imagine, pierced Bart’s soul. He frequently doodled the words in his music journal.
After his father died, Bart started a praise and worship band. When he told his grandmother he was starting a band, she remarked, “Mercy me, Bart, why don’t you get a real job?” Bart named his band MercyMe.
They were four guys, plus Bart’s wife, Shannon, traveling around the country in an old bus, with no heat or air conditioning, to weekend youth retreats. Later they moved to Nashville. After being turned down by every major record label company, twice, they headed back to Greenville where their base of operations was a Sunday school room studio at the First Baptist Church.
On a Sunday night in 1999, 12 years after Arthur died, the band was on the bus headed back to Greenville after a tour. Bart was struggling to write one more song to complete a new album. As he thumbed through his journal, he became keenly aware of the phrase “I can only imagine” doodled everywhere. He finally saw it clearly. God had intended it as a sign. Bart wrote the song lyrics in 10 minutes.
The following day, the band put the lyrics to music in an hour. The first time MercyMe played the song, hundreds of kids came to the altar. Word got around Nashville about Bart’s song. Record companies that had previously turned down the band called. Then Amy Grant called.
Imagine hit radio stations on October 12, 2001. Within a month, 41 of the top 43 radio stations in the country were playing it continuously. The song won Christian and Pop/Contemporary song of the year. Bart Millard was honored as Songwriter of the Year.
Today, I Can Only Imagine is the best-selling Christian song of all time. Almost two decades later, the song still occasionally hits number one on the charts. MercyMe was just a little praise and worship band from Texas, but God had other plans.
“I saw God transform my daddy from a man I hated into the man I wanted to become. The song was born out of that experience. It took me 10 minutes to write it late one night on the bus, but it took a lifetime to get there.” Bart Millard