MercyMe, the country's most well-known Christian band, will bring its Christmas tour to the Gallo Center for the Arts on Friday.
"It's a fun show," said MercyMe bass guitarist Nathan Cochran, who also describes himself as the "official dancer" of the band. "We always look forward to our Christmas shows; our Christmas CD is one of our favorite albums. We'll certainly be playing as much Christmas music as we can cram in, but we'll sing other songs that are important to people, too."
Those songs include "I Can Only Imagine," the first Christian song to go platinum, which catapulted the band to superstardom on Christian and secular radio stations. It was followed by "So Long Self," and "Word of God Speak," which was named the top Christian song of the decade by Billboard Magazine.
The band has sold more than 6 million units, recorded 23 No. 1 Christian radio singles and received nominations for Grammy, Dove and American Music awards. MercyMe has sold out Radio City Music Hall, and hundreds of thousands of fans have attended its ongoing Rock & Worship Roadshow.
But the musicians are simple guys at heart, trying to live for God and raise their families well, Cochran said.
"We only do about 100 shows a year anymore," he said. "Being gone (from home) is the biggest issue as our kids get older, and we're talking about cutting back even more next year. We have to do this as husbands and fathers first, and then MercyMe second. Otherwise, it's upside down. None of us want to come to the end of our careers and realize we weren't there for our families."
The pop-rock group started in 1994 with lead singer Bart Millard, guitarist Mike Scheuchzer and pianist Jim Bryson. Cochran joined the band in 1997, "just about the time the rest of the guys started taking it seriously." Drummer Robby Shaffer came on board about the same time, and Barry Graul added a second guitar in 2003.
In 2001, the group signed with INO Records and released its first major album, "Almost There," which included "Imagine" and eventually went double platinum. The song won a Dove Award for best song of the year in 2002.
The group's name doesn't come from Bible verses about God's mercy, laughed Cochran. Oh, no. Instead, it came from the time when Millard was working as a youth intern at a church in Florida, doing most of his work in the evenings. His grandmother called him regularly during the day and became concerned when he always answered the phone.
"She finally asked him, 'What do you do all day?' He was being a smart aleck and said, 'I answer the phones and order pizzas,' " Cochran said. "She said, 'Well, mercy me, why don't you get a real job?' That's how the name came. I guess you can say it's really a mercy because we haven't had to get real jobs yet."
The band members live in Greenville, Texas, east of Dallas. All of them are married, and four have children. "We have 14 or 15 kids between us now," Cochran said. His are 10, 7 and 4, and he said most of the youngsters are about the same age.
"From time to time, we'll bring our oldest boys with us (on tour)," he said. "There are only two requirements you have to be out of diapers to come on the road with Daddy. And you have to sit still and obey while we're up on stage. It's fun for them it's like having cousins around all the time."
Cochran said the band has stayed intact partly due to the members' common upbringing all come from Christian homes and had similar backgrounds in music and partly from their faith.
"Traveling does get old," he said. "There are times when we have to be on the road and life is happening at home that we miss out on. And we certainly have disagreements from time to time, but if you're trying to love each other, there's nothing you can't run through.
"For us, our faith is extremely the most important thing of what we do our relationship to Christ. When our songs have gone mainstream, it's the thing that has set us apart. There's never been any pressure on us to change what we do."
Although the band occasionally covers other music, it mainly writes its own songs, with Millard creating the lyrics and the other band members coming up with the music. Many songs come from personal experiences. For example, the title track of MercyMe's most recent album, "The Hurt & the Healer," came after Millard's cousin, a firefighter, was killed on the job last year.
"I hope people listen to our music," Cochran said. "Our songs reflect the hard things in our life, an honest place. It's not all 'Kumbaya.' It isn't always trying to make people feel good."
But Friday's concert, he added, will be "fully embracing the joy of why we celebrate the season what it means that Christ came to earth and to abolish all the shame and condemnation so we can actually live free."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2012
WHAT: MercyMe in concert
WHERE: Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
WHEN: Dec. 7
COST: $49 to $79; only a few scattered seats remain
FROM: (209) 338-2100 or www.galloarts.org