Career Killers: “Garth Brooks In… The Life of Chris Gaines”

The year is 1999 and Garth Brooks seems bored.

The best-selling male artist of the 90s (only Celine Dion and Mariah Carey outsold him during that decade), Brooks has seemingly figured out the formula for enduring commercial success. All he has to do is come up with 10 songs or so, pose for the album cover in his best Stetson, put on an entertaining live show and watch the money pour in. Indeed, every one of his proper studio albums has gone Diamond up to that point, and the only one that fell short was a lightly-promoted Christmas album that came out in the summer of 1992 and eventually became a staple of the cutout bin. Of course, this being Garth Brooks, that record still managed to go triple platinum and is one of the best-selling Christmas albums of all time.

Most artists would have sold their souls to have experienced a fraction of the success that had become routine for Brooks. Certainly most artists would have been perfectly content to run that formula into the ground in order to keep that conveyor belt going for as long as possible. But Brooks seemed eager for a new challenge. He talked about retiring so that he could raise his children. He signed a minor league deal and played in spring training for the San Diego Padres.

And in September 1999, he made the decision to cross over into pop-rock. Kind of. It’s still really confusing — even 22 years later.

As we’ve established, Garth Brooks was huge in the 90s. But there were large portions of this country that had never heard any of his songs. Pop-rock FM stations didn’t play any country at the time (unless it was a crossover hit, like “Achy Breaky Heart” or a late 90s song from Shania Twain or Faith Hill), and neither did MTV.

So, if Brooks wanted to get mainstream airplay, he’d have to cross over. But that wasn’t without risks or consequences. For instance, in 1994, he dipped his toe into the water, taking part in the Kiss tribute compilation, Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved. His cover of “Hard Luck Woman,” which he recorded with Kiss and performed with them on The Tonight Show, was well-received and got him some airplay on rock FM stations. However, Brooks made sure to assuage country radio stations that he wasn’t trying to abandon them. According to a July 1994 edition of Billboard, he sounded downright embarrassed and chastened that “Hard Luck Woman” had managed to garner some airplay on pop-rock radio.

What’s killing me is that I’ve heard [“Hard Luck Woman”] more than the current single [“One Night a Day” from his 1994 album In Pieces] on country radio. It was never meant for that. That was part of a Kiss tribute, and I don’t want the confusion out there of where my music is going. I’ve always enjoyed surprise and people not being able to guess what I’m going to do next, but this is not what I’m going to do next.

Garth Brooks, Billboard, July 9, 1994.

Brooks’s reluctance to cross country radio was understandable. Back then, country radio could singlehandedly make or break a star. Until October 2012, Billboard’s country singles chart was determined, solely, by terrestrial radio airplay, so country stars had to stay in the good graces of radio stations and DJs. Even now, in this age of streaming music services and satellite radio, FM country radio still has a tremendous amount of power (although that could be changing).

Today, the lines are blurred when it comes to country, pop and rock (and even hip-hop). But back then, there were clear divisions — and country radio didn’t like it when one of their own tried to go pop. Shania Twain, for instance, got a ton of backlash from country radio when she went pop on 1997’s Come On Over. “All of sudden, they wanted to own her, wanted to be the only one that’s bringing you Shania Twain,” said Mercury Records-Nashville exec who had helped launch her career, in The Biography of Shania Twain. “The record came out of Nashville, on a Nashville label, so the country stations got very proprietary. Suddenly we were fighting a war at radio and they made threats about her music, they made threats about all of our music.”

So it was against that backdrop that Brooks made the decision to go pop in 1999. Sort of.

See, he wouldn’t actually be the one doing the crossing over. Instead, he would star in a movie and then sing his pop songs on the soundtrack. Country had always tolerated its stars acting (Dolly Parton, Dwight Yoakam, Reba McIntyre, Kris Kristofferson, Cyrus and plenty of others had gone Hollywood), so Brooks had some wiggle room. He just had to pick the right film project.

Instead, he chose The Lamb. Produced by pop music impresario Babyface and his wife, Tracey, the proposed film project was about an emo, decadent rock star named “Chris Gaines.” According to The Garth Factor, by Patsi Bale Cox, Babyface sold him on the project by telling him: “we think you can pull this off better than anyone in the business” and “you can’t fall that hard.”

That remained to be seen. In the meantime, Brooks threw himself into the role, deciding on a look that was somewhere between Johnny Rzeznick of the Goo Goo Dolls, Dave Navarro and Derek Zoolander. Clad from head-to-toe in black, Gaines sported the worst soul patch this side of Billy Ray Cyrus or Keith Urban (there’s a theory that Gaines is a parody of Urban, since both are from Australia).

Brooks also concocted a satirical backstory that was full of “Behind the Music” tropes and Hollywood biopic cliches. To sum up, Gaines was born to two Olympic swimmers in Australia. They moved to LA, and he befriended Tommy Levitz. Together, they formed the highly successful band, Crush, becoming big-time rock stars. However, tragedy struck when Tommy died in a plane crash, forcing Gaines to go solo. He became a megastar, but remained unfulfilled because of his ongoing daddy issues and dealt with it by becoming a sex addict. (Actual line from the mockumentary: “Sex. That’s the greatest thing about being a musician.”). After learning he was getting screwed out of royalties by an unscrupulous manager, he got into a car crash and required extensive facial reconstruction — going from looking like a young Brad Pitt to someone who looked like, well, Garth Brooks in a wig. And that was just the backstory. The actual movie would start with Gaines’s death and center around a fan trying to prove it was murder (clearly, either it’s an Eddie and the Cruisers thing where Gaines is actually alive or an actually alive and extremely resentful Tommy kidnapped him, they fought for a bit but then made up and staged a triumphant reunion right?). Got all of that?

With a premise that ridiculous, you’d think the soundtrack (styled as Gaines’ “Greatest Hits”) would be rife with funny, satirical songs a la This is Spinal Tap, The Rutles, Walk Hard or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. However, Brooks actually addressed this and said he wanted to record songs that were sincere and not comical. After all, Gaines may have been surrounded by the bizarre and ludicrous, but that didn’t mean he had to be. So Brooks decided to record the movie’s songs completely in character as an emo, angsty, rock god. That shouldn’t have been a problem. After all, he’s shown that he can pull off pop-rock. All he has to do is sing with his usual exuberance and charisma and he’ll easily pull it off, right?

You’d think that. But Brooks seemed determined to make Gaines into a completely independent entity — at first. In a “Behind the Music”-style mockumentary broadcast on NBC, Brooks did the Andy Kaufman thing and stayed in character as Gaines the entire time. But then, on the November 13, 1999 episode of Saturday Night Live where Brooks was billed as the host while Gaines was listed as the musical guest, it was acknowledged that they were the same.

However, Brooks stuck to the dichotomy when it came time to record the songs. Singing in a higher register (even falsetto on some songs) and without his trademark drawl, Gaines sounds nothing like Brooks. It’s a little jarring for anyone who’s heard Brooks in his element to suddenly hear him like this. But it’s not bad — in fact, he sounds great. On some songs, he positively sings his ass off. Perhaps Brooks, who’s long been criticized as a good-to-average singer who got by because of his showmanship, was trying to prove a point. Maybe he was trying to show that he could be a great singer under the right circumstances and outside of the image and structure he had built.

The big hit off this album was lead single “Lost In You.” Despite hitting #5 on the Billboard pop charts, this Babyface-esque acoustic ballad has largely been forgotten about (at least until Childish Gambino did a well-received cover of it in 2019). That’s too bad, because it’s an achingly beautiful song and Brooks has, arguably, never sounded better.

The other singles off the album were also quite good. Third single “That’s The Way I Remember It” is a Toad the Wet Sprocket-type mid-tempo rock song that’s a perfectly cromulent track. I’m surprised rock bands haven’t covered it more. Second single “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” is one of two songs on the album that sound the most “country” (the other is “Main Street,” which was co-written by Brooks’s wife, country star Trisha Yearwood), and the one where Brooks most sounds like himself. If this album had done better, I could see Brooks bringing this back onto his current setlist.

There’s an eclectic mix of music on this album, and some of it works for Brooks. The Beatles pastiche “Maybe” is a catchy song and the Wallflowers-esque “Unsigned Letter” is a pretty accurate snapshot of where rock music was at that point. The R&B song “Driftin’ Away” is a definite highlight, as Brooks really leans on his gospel roots and shows off impressive vocal range and strength.

Others don’t work. “Way of the Girl,” which he performed on SNL, sounds like a Richard Marx song that’s burdened by a weak hook. The funky “Snow in July” also falls short, as he sounds unconvincing and way out of his element. Meanwhile, “Right Now,” which samples the Youngbloods’ classic “Get Together,” got a lot of flak from critics for his limp rap-style rapid fire spoken-word delivery on the verses. I didn’t think it was that bad, but I understand why people didn’t like it. Plus the entire structure of the verses basically consists of him saying: “Maybe it’s [x], maybe it’s [y]” and then putting almost everything in our culture into those variables, like movies, books, government, media, drugs, gangs, the Bible, etc. It’s all a bit confusing. So is he saying that everyone shares the blame for being unable to smile on their brother, get together and love one another right now? Or is he saying that the way society is currently constructed makes it impossible for people to find common ground? If it’s the latter, he may have been prescient.

In totality, this album is quite enjoyable and isn’t nearly as bad as people made it out to be. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic put it: “Judged as Brooks’s first pop album, it’s pretty good, and if it had been released that way, it likely would have been embraced by a wide audience. As it stands, it’s an album more fascinating for what it is than for the music itself.” Indeed, the baggage of Chris Gaines dragged the album down and turned it into a trainwreck, ensuring it would never be judged on its own merits, but rather through the lens of a bizarre character and ludicrous film project.

While Garth Brooks In… The Life of Chris Gaines managed to debut at #2 on the Billboard 200 (behind Creed’s Human Clay), sales quickly fizzled. The album eventually went double-platinum, a great figure for some, but it marked the lowest return for Brooks up to that point in his career. When The Lamb was cancelled shortly after the album was released, it made the whole thing seem like an abject failure. Brooks retreated back to country, where his next studio album, 2001’s Scarecrow, went 5x platinum — again, a great figure for some, but for Brooks, it was a 50% drop compared to his previous country album, 1997’s Sevens. He retired shortly afterward and didn’t release another album until 2014, whereupon the music industry had radically changed and platinum albums were no longer a given for anyone — even him.

There are many reasons why this album failed. As some critics have noted, authenticity had always been a part of Brooks’s image — that’s why he connected with so many people and sold so many albums. A blue collar hero who could sing about serious issues affecting many Americans one moment and then let loose with a drunken, party anthem the next, Brooks has always been someone people and fans felt like they knew. Some critics, like Chuck Klosterman and Rob Sheffield have even posited that Brooks appealed to the same base as Bruce Springsteen, and that both artists had a knack for telling “stories about blue-collar people who felt good about what their bad lives symbolized.”

Gaines just resonated inauthenticity — and it’s not because Brooks is playing a character. After all, as Klosterman points out, David Bowie played Ziggy Stardust, and that felt real — like an extension of Bowie’s actual personality. Instead, Gaines was partly satirical and felt like a laundry list of tropes and cliches that were never part of Brooks’s image or brand. Worse, even if you didn’t understand the nature of the country music industry, recording as Gaines and not Brooks seemed like a cop-out. While other artists have done something similar (like U2 with the Passengers project), it was usually for a side-project or one-off — not a proposed motion picture and network special. As such, Brooks was caught between wanting publicity for his big project but insulating himself from it in case it failed.

Plus, and this is just me talking, Gaines was no fun. Sure, he had the weird mockumentary and Brooks seemed to enjoy doing the Andy Kaufman thing while it lasted, but otherwise, this whole thing just seemed like a chore. The songs were good but Brooks’s performances in character meant he couldn’t do all of the theatrical and entertaining stuff he was known for. Everyone I know who’s gone to see Garth Brooks in concert says they had an absolute blast, and whenever I see him on TV performing, it sure looks like everyone is having the time of their lives. Having fun has always been Brooks’s calling card, and being Chris Gaines (at least on stage) was not fun. At least it wasn’t for the fans.

And it turns out, it wasn’t much fun for Brooks, either. Brooks went through a period where he refused to talk about Gaines or acknowledge the existence of this album. It’s not listed on his official website, and has long been out of print. When Brooks unveiled GhostTunes, his streaming service to compete with iTunes, one of the selling points was that it was the only place online to buy his music in digital format. Well, almost all of his music — the Chris Gaines album was noticeably absent from his GhostTunes artist page. Nor is the album available on Amazon Music, which acquired GhostTunes in 2017.

But that could be changing. The album has become a cult favorite, and there’s even a festival in Nashville celebrating it. Yearwood is on record saying she loves the Chris Gaines album and hopes to hear more from him. In 2019, to mark the 20th anniversary of Chris Gaines, Brooks actually did some interviews on the subject, acknowledging the project’s failure and the toll it took on him, but also looking back with some fondness. “A lot of people misunderstood it, and my ribs are still sore from getting the s*** kicked out of me for it,” he told Yahoo in 2019. “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, because the pop world works,” he said to Westword in 2019. “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. It was draining. It was fun, but I’m good not to touch it again.”

That promise lasted a couple of years. In March 2021, Brooks announced that the Chris Gaines album would be available at some point via several different formats. He even promised to unearth some previously unreleased tracks. No word on whether we’ll get another mockumentary or movie. Chris Gaines faking his death and re-emerging after twenty years to become a TikTok star would be appropriate in today’s world.

Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    James G Polk

    January 17, 2022

    It’s amazing how few “spectacular career killers” there are in country music. Garth gets the attention due to his huge cross over success, but the impression seems be that country insulates its artists from the kind of expectations of pop artists—at least on paper. And of course, success in country is a different beast from success in mainstream pop, especially the farther back in time one goes. I’ve found at least one country record that likely put its artist under forever, Bill Anderson’s Ladies Choice. Country-disco, thanks in 1979. Indeed.

    • Reply

      Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

      February 1, 2022

      Yeah, I think you’re right about there being very few career killers in country music. My guess would be that country music tends to take care of their own (which is why Garth was so reluctant to cross country radio).

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