For the cover of his new album, Garth Brooks in … The Life of Chris Gaines, Garth Brooks grew a soul patch beneath his lower lip, donned a dark wig, and even, it seems, changed his bone structure to make his fleshy jawline more angular. Photoshop? Plastic surgery? Or has Brooks really made a deal with the Devil?
The gaunt, haunted-looking man on the cover of Brooks’s much-heralded pop crossover album is supposed to be Chris Gaines, a fictional rock star whom Brooks will portray in a film next year. But while Brooks is more or less new to rock, he’s certainly no stranger to playing a character. Nashville all but requires its celebrities to sell themselves as good ol’ boys (and girls) who would rather be knocking back a few cold ones in the back of a pickup. Brooks is so conscious of his manipulation of country’s costume drama that he frequently refers to himself, Bob Dole-style, in the third person.
But even by Brooks’s standards, the Chris Gaines project achieves a new level of inauthenticity. The “official biography” says that Gaines dropped out of Morningside High School to play music but “did complete his G.E.D. in 1987.” The liner notes of this album – ostensibly a collection of Gaines’s greatest hits – are even richer with this kind of detail. “It Don’t Matter to the Sun” is supposed to be a cover of a song by Ramsey Sellers, one of Gaines’s father’s favorite singers. “I even remember my father having Ramsey Sellers eight-tracks for the car,” Gaines writes.
There will never be another singer like Ramsey Sellers – because Brooks invented him too. It’s hard to imagine the pragmatic Brooks as the kind of daydreamer who has a fantasy life this elaborate, but the Chris Gaines conceit gives him a way to play pop music without alienating his country fans. Brooks hardly needs an alter ego to sing like Don Henley – the line between rock and country has been blurred since the seventies, and megastars like Brooks and Shania Twain sell millions of albums precisely because their music sounds like pop.
But Brooks certainly needs an alter ego if he wants to sing like a black man. Which, apparently, he does. While the rock songs on Chris Gaines are getting the attention, much of the album is devoted to R&B – Brooks even raps on “Right Now.” According to Brooks’s Gaines mythology, the star emerged from a violent car crash with a goth look and an R&B-influenced sound, and was dubbed “the new Prince.” “Snow in July” and “Way of the Girl” do echo Prince, but Brooks – especially on the single “Lost in You” – sounds more like the new Babyface. In fact, Brooks recently collaborated with the old Babyface (although none of the music they recorded together appears on this album), and the producer is slated to work with Brooks on the next Chris Gaines album.
Once, country singers like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers roamed through the blues, and soul singers like Ray Charles and Al Green cut country songs. Now, though, country defines its influences so narrowly it almost seems inbred. It has been reported that some country D.J.’s are having fits because their most consistently profitable hit-maker has made an album that knowingly embraces the one style that’s still off-limits for rigorously ritualized country radio: black music.
Confronting Nashville’s prejudices is almost transgressive, and the genre needs exactly the kind of cross-cultural transfusion that Brooks is offering. But he isn’t really a rebel at heart – he just plays one on this album. Brooks has simply gone from making well-crafted, uninspired country to making well-crafted, uninspired R&B. And if the country Establishment won’t follow him, what will they do when a real innovator comes along?