Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines: 20 Years Later, the Experiment Fascinates
Twenty years after the release of the first — and, to date, only — Chris Gaines album, Greatest Hits, the fictional rock star behind the music is more intriguing than ever. Not only is there a GainesFest -- featuring a tribute band and look-alike contest -- happening in Nashville on Saturday (Sept. 28), the 20th anniversary of the record's release, but there's also a thorough podcast about his life and times, and dozens of nostalgia-driven anniversary pieces coming down the pipeline.
The fascination makes sense: Garth Brooks' identity experiment — Gaines was an Australian-born pop star with an elaborate backstory, some major personality flaws and a robust fictional music catalog — seems even more implausible now than it did back in 1999. The singer was coming off the decade in which he became a bona fide superstar, releasing seven full-length records and selling more than 90 million albums. Transforming himself into Gaines was a 180-degree turn from mega-fame, a total curiosity that seemed like a total oddity; in fact, only two months after the Gaines album hit stores, Brooks released Garth Brooks and the Magic of Christmas, which easily hit No. 1 on the country charts.
On top of that, the motivation behind Gaines' emergence has always been somewhat mysterious. Sure, the transformation was ostensibly to set up a movie, The Lamb, that was being written by Jeb Stuart (the writer of Die Hard and The Fugitive) and at one point even had a release date of 2001. (Although this date came and went, the movie was still an ongoing concern in 2002, according to a CMT report.) Brooks himself even said at the time that Gaines was driven by The Lamb: "It's just me, it's Garth," he said in 1999. "It's fun, it's a character in a movie."
"Country music is what I do,” Brooks told the Los Angeles Times back then. “This is just something I was hired to do by the folks at Paramount. I wouldn’t be doing this [otherwise]."
However, Brooks has always been known for savvy marketing — and his promotional blitz for Gaines was rather extensive and thorough for a movie that technically was only in its embryonic stages. In fact, the campaign included a sordid (entirely fake) episode of VH1's Behind the Music (featuring Billy Joel), an NBC special and an appearance on Saturday Night Live. On the latter show, Brooks even did a straightforward performance as Gaines.
From a musical and persona standpoint, Brooks took the Gaines concept quite seriously, as outlined by the songwriters he worked with and by his own admission. "We want people to go into the theater and know Chris Gaines and care about Chris Gaines,'' Brooks told the Los Angeles Times. "The thing I'd like to get across is how serious we are about this. There's the Rutles and there's Spinal Tap, and this is exactly the opposite." If it was a long-tail marketing setup for a film, Brooks did a rather incredible job giving his all.
Musically as well, Greatest Hits made a case for Brooks-as-Gaines as a credible musician. The album still sold 2 million copies, and "Lost in You" peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100; to date, it remains Brooks' biggest pop crossover hit. (The hip-hop artist Childish Gambino also recently covered the song.) Paradoxically, however, Gaines' career is essentially buried. Like Brooks' catalog, Greatest Hits isn't streaming on Apple Music or Spotify, and both the music video for "Lost In You" and the numerous Gaines-related TV appearances aren't available in full on YouTube. (The CD is available easily and cheaply on Amazon, however, and a quick Google search easily brings you to the Behind the Music episode.)
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In this day and age, being absent from streaming services usually diminishes an artist's legacy. However, people are still invested in Gaines precisely because his career isn't available at the click of a button. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Greatest Hits is actually good. This isn't the case of a musician burying an embarrassing debut album or ill-advised sonic detour — just someone who doesn't want that work out there.
Brooks himself is somewhat willing to talk about Gaines; however, he frequently talks about feeling like he was kicked in the ribs for doing the project, and has noted how people didn't warm to his alter-ego. "There is a ton of Garth in Chris, once you start to get familiar with Chris’s music,” he said in 2015. “But one of the things that still will never settle easy with a lot of people, including my dad still doesn’t get it, is how this kind of face, that looks like this and has for a decade, sings a song that goes [sings in falsetto] 'There’s no more waiting.' It’s very strange to see that coming out of this face."
Of course, Gaines is also fascinating because he seems like a quaint relic from a time just before the entertainment business was rocked by the digital revolution. It's highly unlikely today that a movie studio or record label would fund what amounts to an immersive, big-budget rockstar cosplay (especially since a Gaines-like campaign could now be executed via social media and gain just as much traction). That Brooks promptly turned around and retired in 2000 also adds to the Gaines mythology: While Brooks was already restless about music by 1999, it's not hard to surmise that the experiment probably hastened his retreat.
Many artists have toyed with identity, and dozens of country artists have dipped their toes into other genres and crossed over into the mainstream. But few have thrown themselves so fully into a personality transformation, since country music is so rooted in authenticity and the perception of self. As Brooks himself put it to Denver Westword in June, "Country music, we just go in and you kinda get to be yourself. But the pop world deals a lot with characters within the character." The perceived failure of Gaines arguably put the kibosh on such severe country curveballs; in fact, it's telling that, despite his celebrated post-retirement touring victory laps, even Brooks still doesn't want to revisit those days.
"Sony Pictures decided to do this script about an artist being worth more to a label dead than alive. That was the basis. They needed a character they could kill. Well, you can't kill somebody real, right?" he told Denver Westword. "And so we wrote the music for it and played the music for it, thinking it was going to be a fun thing, and it somehow went south.
"It's still some of my favorite music that I ever got to participate in — probably the most I ever had to work in music ... It was draining," Brooks added. "It was fun, but I'm good not to touch it again."
That said, it's unclear whether Brooks is truly aware that, in many circles, Gaines is no longer viewed with negativity. Twenty years on, that's perhaps the biggest shift: Perceptions soften over time, and what was seen as a failure back then is today seen like an intriguing part of a superstar catalog that's worth revisiting and celebrating.
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