(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Ten years ago on Sept. 28, a gigantic creature came bursting to life from a Nashville recording studio and was unleashed upon the world. Fully formed at birth, Chris Gaines sprang into being with a complete back story, a brand new greatest hits album and a story to tell — or hint at. And maybe a future movie and more. What a grand concept.
How to easily explain “Chris Gaines”? Well, the prevailing theory is that Garth (may I call him that?) began to get bored of massive pop-country success and enormous record sales that were, to be sure, beginning to show a decline. Ever the visionary, he imagined an alter ego releasing records into a receptive rock market. And with that would come a revitalized career with a major movie on the horizon. The movie had reached serious talking stages between Garth’s production company, Red Strokes Entertainment, and Paramount Pictures.
It was an audacious plan on a grand scale, and it could have worked. No popular music artist has ever even attempted a total reinvention successfully and, in fact, I don’t know that it has ever been tried on this scale. So Garth deserves congratulations for thinking large.
The initial step of the campaign was a greatest hits album, to be followed (after a year or so of audience acclimation) by the major motion picture, The Lamb, starring Chris Gaines as a troubled rock singer (with a new concept album of the same name). For the project, Garth lost weight, got a rock ‘n’ roll wardrobe and hired a movie makeup artist to transform him into Gaines for a music video and album photo shoot.
The album was titled Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines on the front of the CD case, and the back showed only Gaines’ name and the Greatest Hits title. It was helmed by top-line producers Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Don Was with Garth, and the songs came from top-line songwriters including Wayne Kirkpatrick, Gordon Kennedy and Tommy Sims. The album, billed as a prequel soundtrack for the movie, included hits from through Gaines’ career with his group, Crush, and solo albums from throughout his career.
According to his official bio, Christian Gene Gaines was born in 1967 in Brisbane, Australia, and his family moved to L.A. when Chris was 5, perhaps explaining his lack of any Aussie accent. Gaines dropped out of high school and formed the rock band Crush. After the group’s lead singer (who was Gaines’ best friend) was killed in a plane crash, Gaines secluded himself before returning with a solo album — which was a smash. Then, Gaines had a tragic car wreck and again went into seclusion.
His albums included Crush’s self-titled 1986 debut, 1989’s Straight Jacket, 1991’s Fornucopia, 1994’s Apostle and 1996’s Triangle. They purportedly traced his music through an evolution that by turns sounded Beatlesque and a bit like Prince, Fleetwood Mac and so on. The cuts on the hits album are representative of each era.
To promote the greatest hits release, Garth hosted Saturday Night Live as himself, with Gaines performing “Way of the Girl” on the show — with no explanation from Garth. He also appeared on a VH1 “mockumentary” on its Behind the Music series.
The Garth/Chris hullabaloo only added to the chaos that was Capitol Nashville records in those days. Label head Jimmy Bowen, a forceful executive who did not always see eye to eye with Garth, had retired and was replaced in 1995 by a respected music producer, Scott Hendricks. Garth did not seem to regard Hendricks favorably, and by the end of 1997, Hendricks was forced out and replaced by a marketer, Pat Quigley. So the business side of Capitol Nashville was not always totally focused then.
Brooks’ push for Chris Gaines debut in September 1999 consumed much of Capitol Nashville’s attention and energy. That all served to incidentally stifle the progress of a new Capitol Nashville release by a fledgling young artist trying to get solo exposure after his group, the Ranch, released a debut album that failed commercially. That was Keith Urban, whose self-titled solo album was released in October of 1999. More than one journalist noticed that both Urban and Gaines were born in Australia in 1967 and raised in Brisbane and that their music was much closer to pop and rock than to Nashville country.
Gaines’ album release came and went. Country fans overwhelmingly did not understand it or accept it. The songs “Lost in You” and “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” briefly charted country. (“Lost in You” peaked at No. 62 while “Matter” made it to No. 24). “Lost in You” became Garth’s only Top 5 pop hit. Once the album more or less fizzled by Garthian sales standards, the impetus for the movie disappeared. Chris Gaines withdrew into Garth’s bag of tricks. In 2000, Garth announced he was retiring from recording and performing.
Chris Gaines’ video of “Right Now” is still playing on YouTube, where there are also many cover versions of other Gaines songs. The Greatest Hits album is still available at Amazon.com. Nielsen/SoundScan reports that the album is platinum, with total sales just over 1.1 million copies. (In 1999, when it was released, projected sales were expected to be over 2 million). Obviously, Chris Gaines has some fans.
I spent some time tonight with the CD and its elaborate notes and photographs and felt an odd affection for this Icarus-like leap for the sun. It was a grand attempt. Thus do eras end. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.