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Author’s Note: I know Garth Brooks isn’t Southern by birth. However, I think that his music catalog earns him an honorary title.
In 1999, the world was introduced to Chris Gaines. Chris Gaines is a shaggy haired, eyeliner smeared, constantly moping pop-rock star who had numerous chart-topping albums, a life-crippling addiction, and a past made up of so many tragic events it would make Dr. Phil cry out for joy. The thing is though, Chris Gaines was also Garth Brooks. Oh, and also Chris Gaines had never existed before that time.
You see, Chris Gaines was a false persona created by Garth Brooks in preparation for a film called “The Lamb,” which was apparently going to be a real movie, but never got released. As a promotion for this film, Garth recorded an entire album of music by his Chris Gaines persona, each song tied to a fictional event in this made-up person’s life.
Now, this by itself is strange enough. However, the sheer amount of press behind this album is downright odd. There is an entire episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” dedicated to Chris Gaines. To be clear, this means that a show that is typically dedicated to revealing information about individuals or groups who are musically acclaimed created over 50 minutes of programming about the fictional alter ego of Garth Brooks who had released one album.
Oh, and this wasn’t created to explain why Garth Brooks would do such a bizarre thing. This is what I can best describe as a short film telling the back story of this fictional character.
There are interviews with Chris Gaines’ friends, lovers, mother, and former manager. There is footage of a friend that died in a plane crash. There is behind the scenes footage. There is footage of Chris Gaines in his first music group, Crush. All of it fictional. All of it made up. This is essentially a 50 minute commercial to advertise what would be a 100 minute movie at best – a movie that had no expected release date.
Then we get into the content of the music itself. The album sold more than 2 million copies, so it can’t exactly be treated as a commercial flop. I think it’s fair to assume that 1.99 million of those sales likely came from Garth Brooks fans, considering his previous album, Seven, sold more than 10 million copies.
However, as a contribution to the art form of music, it isn’t necessarily Tchaikovsky or Charlie Daniels. For example, here’s an excerpt from Garth Brooks’ Chris Gaines’ song “White Flag:”
“I say black, you say white
I say day, you call it a night
What’s wrong with this scene
What does this mean”
Isn’t it absolutely moving?
Garth hasn’t commented a lot on Chris Gaines. There are a couple of older interviews, but most of it was promotional shtick for the album / movie. Luckily, he did an interview last month where he weighs in somewhat.
It seems he’s still licking his wounds a little bit from this misstep, or as he puts it, “My ribs are still sore from getting the (redacted) kicked out of me for it.” Later in the interview he comments, “I would never even really get close to it again, because it really was a really tough time for me, because of the fact that I saw for the first time that people can be focused on something way past the music. And that’s never a good thing when music takes a backseat.”
Personally, I take issue with this statement. I understand his ego being bruised. It takes a big ego to be a public figure like he is. However, to complain about people not focusing on the music is a bit silly.
He’s a country music star who’s known for wearing a cowboy hat and using the rodeo aesthetic who suddenly donned a wig and eyeliner – did this somehow change the quality of his music? Was this done to better access this part of himself that he wanted to express musically? Considering there was a movie deal in the works, I highly doubt it.
Country music began perfecting pop crossover in the 90s. LeAnn Rimes, Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain, and Tim McGraw all made careers off of being able to straddle that line – and they were following in Garth’s footsteps.
There’s a lot more to be said about the shifts in country music that occurred because of this popularization of the genre. While this has led to commodification of the source material, it happened because artists found what everyone wanted to hear about the Southern experience.
It can be hard to figure out which parts of yourself that people want to hear or see. Clearly Garth had a lot of passion for creating Chris Gaines. I refuse to believe that an already massively successful artist would take such a leap without having some sort of personal interest in investing himself in this. Maybe Chris Gaines is the music that Garth really wanted to be making at that time. He’s a bit too cautious in front of a camera for us to really know the answer to that question. It’s clear to see though that Garth has some real courage to blaze that trail.
Problem with being a trailblazer is that sometimes the trail you’re blazing just hits a wall.