Garth Brooks has some explaining to do. What’s this about country music’s biggest name putting out a pop album? And starring in a movie?
“I know, I know,” a smiling Brooks answers, standing in a Capitol Records recording studio in Hollywood. “Strange stuff. But you have to hear the music to understand.”
On this afternoon, Brooks is wearing sneakers and a baseball cap instead of his western wear, but far more startling is his appearance in a stack of new photographs: gaunt, dour and garbed in black, fully in character with his new alter ego, Chris Gaines.
Gaines is the doomed pop star in a mystery film titled “The Lamb,” expected in theaters next year. But it’s a role that goes beyond the silver screen. Brooks will also assume the persona musically this September with a “greatest hits” album titled “In the Life of Chris Gaines.”
The bizarre campaign goes even further: NBC will air a prime-time TV special on Sept. 29 featuring Brooks singing Gaines songs to promote the album, and a second Gaines collection will be released next year in the form of the film’s soundtrack. Strangest of all, a “Gaines” song titled “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” will be featured in an unrelated film, “Love of the Game.”
All of it is meant to create a buzz, of course, which is a specialty of country’s top showman and entrepreneur. But Brooks says it’s also an effort to build a rapport between the film’s future audience and this artificial artist.
“We want people to go into the theater and know Chris Gaines and care about Chris Gaines,” Brooks says. “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.”
And what exactly does Chris Gaines sound like?
The 14 songs on the “greatest hits” package range wildly in style, a purposeful effort to depict the evolution of a career artist. One song has a swirling calliope and horns that evoke the Beatles, another sounds like a backstreets anthem a la Bruce Springsteen, yet another has the distinct drum sound and rhythms of Fleetwood Mac. The most startling may be “Lost in You,” a smoky R&B; song and the first single.
Operating a CD player’s remote control, Brooks skips through the songs and introduces each with the anxious enthusiasm of an artist treading on new ground. Once the songs start, he paces or stares out the second-story window. Wearing a spring training T-shirt from his recent stint as a major league baseball player (a childhood dream realized as a charity stunt), he has no celebrity trappings, no hovering assistants.
“I’d really love to hear what you think,” says the 37-year-old singer, who has sold 95 million albums in the United States, a colossal total second only to that of the Beatles.
There is one constant among the songs: None of the vocals sounds anything like Brooks. Singing high and with unfamiliar cadences, Brooks deeply submerges his familiar baritone and twang.
Will this strange new persona and voice bring Brooks to a whole new plateau, or is he risking the foundation he’s already standing on? As he starts his second decade as a recording artist, Brooks will have to put his country career on hold, which may risk alienating his core fans and country radio programmers.
“Yes, I think he’s going to lose some people in cowboy hats--not for life; they just won’t want to hear him sing this stuff--and then he’s going to get new fans,” says Don Was, the producer of the Gaines album. “But this is a guy who likes going out on a limb.”
Country radio programmers are loath to think of their biggest star mounting a high-profile project that is based on music they can’t play, says Lon Helton, country columnist for the trade publication Radio & Records.
“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen with it, but the Capitol plan is to serve it to country radio but to not promote it at all. The country guys are going to listen to it and see if they can play any of it on their stations.”
Brooks has done several showcases for industry and press to debut the new sound, but country radio leaders were purposely left off the invitation lists, Helton says. The message was not to expect a country sound from “The Lamb,” but Brooks has also been careful to send signals that, in Helton’s words, “he is still a country guy, not a carpetbagger headed to pop.”
That doesn’t mean the Gaines project is a completely safe career choice for Brooks, says Pat Quigley, president of Capitol Nashville.
“There’s two risky elements here,” Quigley says. “Can Garth succeed in the rock, pop and R&B; world? And can you put out an advance soundtrack and succeed without the benefit of the movie being in theaters? And that doesn’t even address the challenge of him acting.”
Gaines Seen in Film Flashback
Brooks says the acting challenge is manageable because his role will be limited by the film’s structure, which sounds similar to the life-in-review construction of “Citizen Kane.” “The Lamb” unfolds after the mysterious death of Gaines, and the singer is seen primarily in concert and interview snippets.
The film follows a fan of the singer who suspects that Gaines died of foul play, and she begins working back through the chapters of his life, from his stint in a one-hit wonder band called Crush to his ascension to troubled superstar.
The screenplay is being written by Jeb Stuart (“The Fugitive,” “Die Hard”); no director has been tapped yet for the Paramount film.
Brooks came to the project as a co-producer with his company Red Strokes Entertainment, and he says the early plan was for “somebody thin and gorgeous” to play Gaines. But then Paramount embraced the project and pushed Brooks to take the role, he says.
A cynic could say Brooks is donning the Gaines guise to test his sales viability in pop genres with little risk to his established “brand name.” But Brooks insists he will not perform live as Gaines, nor will he sing Gaines songs at his own concerts. “The Lamb,” he says, is side work, not a new direction.
“Country music is what I do,” he says. “This is just something I was hired to do by the folks at Paramount. I wouldn’t be doing this [otherwise].”
But Brooks also says just a few minutes later that if the film and two tie-in albums “take off,” he could make as many as four more Gaines albums, filling in the artist’s career. So the real mystery of “The Lamb” may not be how Gaines dies, but how long he lives after the final credits roll.
“Truthfully, though, this is acting,” Brooks says, holding up a compact disc with the face of Chris Gaines on its cover. “This is hard. The other stuff, the Garth stuff, it just happens, it’s fun. This is work.”
“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.”