Dennis Quaid is on top of the world these days — almost literally. The veteran actor is shooting a British TV show near the North Pole while back home his new film, I Can Only Imagine, is crushing it at the box office, and now his very first music video, for “On My Way to Heaven,” premieres on Billboard.com.
“This is just as thrilling as my first movie coming out. It really is. I’ve played music all my life and I’ve been in several bands,” says the Houston native, who has fronted DQ and the Sharks for nearly 18 years. “We’re going to be the oldest guys to make it in the music business,” Quaid says, and you can almost hear that trademark grin over the phone. “I had a band in the ’80s, The Eclectics, and it was basically Bonnie Raitt’s backup band. It was like that movie The Commitments. The night we got our record deal, we broke up. That was certainly the ’80s. We signed with Capitol, I think. We broke up and I was in rehab the next day.”
Quaid credits the late, great actor Harry Dean Stanton with rekindling his musical ambitions. “I wanted to get back in music and he was playing at a club in LA,” Quaid says during a phone call from Longyearbyen, Norway, where he’s shooting the TV series Fortitude. “I’d already known Harry Dean for quite a while, and he was there playing. His backup band was basically The Sharks, minus the drummer. Jamie James plays guitar in the band. He and I bonded, and Harry Dean gave his blessing for us to go out and do some gigs. We’ve been building slowly, but we decided now is the time to do it.”
Quaid and the band have been in the studio working with producer T Bone Burnett and hope to have additional songs out this summer. “On My Way to Heaven” is among the songs he’s cut with Burnett and will be featured on the I Can Only Imagine soundtrack. “I wrote the verses of the song 25 years ago, actually. I wrote it for my mom,” Quaid says of his 91-year-old mother, Nita Quaid. “I wanted to write a more traditional country music type of gospel song. I wrote it, and it just sat there for a long time. Then when I was doing the movie, I Can Only Imagine, the bridge came to me, which completed it.”
The film is the true story of Bart Millard, frontman of the platinum-selling Christian band MercyMe, and his relationship with his abusive father. Quaid portrays Millard’s father, Arthur, who died of cancer after accepting Christ and turning his life around. Millard has said his father went from being a monster to being his best friend. He wrote the song “I Can Only Imagine” after his father’s death, and it went on to sell 2.5 million copies, making it the best-selling song in Christian music history.
“I had not heard the song ‘I Can Only Imagine’ and I had never heard of Bart’s story. I didn’t know of MercyMe,” Quaid admits. “I was sent the script. When I read a script, it’s the only time I’m going to have the chance of being an audience member with the first-time experience of that, and that’s how I choose all the roles I do— how the story affects me. And it just hit me in the place where I had no words.”
I Can Only Imagine opened March 16 and shattered expectations by becoming the No. 3 film at the box office that weekend and the No. 1 faith-based film of 2018, taking in an estimated $17 million for a per-screen average of $10,475 from 1,629 locations in North America.
“This is a movie for the underserved audience out there that really is yearning to see stories that inspire and are real and people can relate to,” says Quaid, whose four-decade career includes such films as The Right Stuff, Traffic, Frequency, The Parent Trap, The Rookie, Far From Heaven and A Dog’s Purpose. “It was such a big hit because people hear that song and they relate to their own lives, and that’s what the movie does, in a way. It’s a beautiful story of redemption. I’m just very gratified about the numbers.”
Quaid has also formed a friendship with Millard, and when MercyMe played Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium on March 4, Dennis Quaid and the Sharks were the opening act. “I had to come to the North Pole to shoot, but then I had a break that I’d built in already to do press for the film and be there for the premiere,” Quaid explains. “Bart was doing a concert at the Ryman, so we planned on The Sharks playing there. The Erwin Brothers [who directed the film] wanted to do a video for the song. I hadn’t even thought of it because I’d never done a music video before, so we did it in a warehouse on Saturday and then on Sunday we were doing the concert, so at soundcheck, we shot film for the video there at the Ryman.”
Quaid had visited the Ryman years before as a tourist and was thrilled to be back as a performer. “My dressing room had a picture of Gene Autry on the wall, and he’s my cousin,” Quaid says. “He was my grandfather’s first cousin and they grew up together in Oklahoma, so that makes him my third cousin. I did meet him. He came to the premiere of Wyatt Earp [the 1994 film that features Quaid’s memorable turn as Doc Holliday]. That’s where I met him, and he was just a great guy. What a force upon music as well as movies and television, just incredible. To be there and have his picture right there in my dressing room, it was a special place. The entire band felt how special it was. It’s hard to describe.”
Quaid plans on more gigs with the Sharks this summer and is excited about releasing additional songs from the sessions they recorded with Burnett. “I’m open to a record deal with a label, and I think that eventually that might be the best way to go,” he says, “but we’re going to release at least 10 songs coming up here by the summer.”
Quaid says the band’s sound is a combination of influences. “I guess you might call it Americana,” he muses. “I grew up in country music, like Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold, Waylon Jennings, and had a lot of mentors along the way. Cowboy Jack Clement was a huge influence on me and a great mentor early in my life. I’ve been lucky enough to have had many influences in rock and roll too. Rock and roll, country and blues is where we’re at, but there’s also a little lounge-music influence. We have fun. We’re a fun band and a high-energy band. We like to get people up and moving.”
In talking about his music, Quaid sounds like an enthusiastic teen with his first guitar. “I’m just really excited about the song being out there,” he says of “On My Way to Heaven.” “I’ve always been a musician. I’m not defensive about being an actor. I always say, ‘Come to the show and see the movie star and maybe you’ll stay for the music.’ I don’t care how they come. It’s what we do. I’m proud of this band.”
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