Garth Brooks opens up about Chris Gaines era: 'My ribs are still sore from getting the s*** kicked out of me for it'

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·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
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Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines in 1999. (Photo: Capitol Records)
Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines in 1999. (Photo: Capitol Records)

In 1999, country megastar Garth Brooks seemed untouchable and invincible. Brooks was such a success story, in fact, that an album that went to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 album chart, sold 2 million copies, and yielded the only top 10 single of his career, “Lost in You,” could be considered a colossal failure. But 20 years later, it’s time to look back at Brooks’s short-lived, often ridiculed, but actually fascinating and ambitious Chris Gaines era in a different light.

Chris Pearl Gaines was a fictional character, created and played by Brooks – a hard-living hard rock star from Australia with his own (fake) VH1 Behind the Music special (featuring commentary by Billy Joel and Don Was!), and a crazy sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll backstory that actually seemed stranger than fiction. On the cover of the one studio album billed to this character, a faux greatest-hits collection called In the Life of Chris Gaines, a soul-patched Brooks glowered out from under his black emo fringe through kohl-caked eyes, seemingly doing his best Dave Navarro impression.

The music contained within In the Life of Chris Gaines wasn’t exactly heavy metal or alternative — it was more heartland AOR along the lines of the Wallflowers or Goo Goo Dolls, with a touch of Quiet Storm soul thanks to Brooks’s previously un-showcased falsetto. But it definitely wasn’t country, and Brooks’s fans were understandably baffled. Music critics for the most part dismissed the project as misguided or even megalomaniacal, although they treated the actual music more kindly. (It has been speculated that the project was a tribute to one of Brooks’s musical heroes, Dan Fogelberg.)

Chris Gaines’s near-death saga of drug use, a scarring automobile accident, and against-all-odds redemption was explored in his impressively detailed Behind the Music parody, but the entire project would have made more sense if a planned feature film about the Gaines persona, The Lamb, had ever materialized, or had been rolled out at the same time as the Gaines album. But since the film project was shelved, In the Life of Chris Gaines ended up being just a strange and misunderstood blip on Brooks’s Wikipedia page.

In recent years, however, the Gaines project has garnered respect. Brooks’s wife, Trisha Yearwood, has said it’s her favorite Garth album. Dierks Bentley told Radio.com, “Chris Gaines’s album is one of the best albums Nashville’s ever made, it really is. Garth making that album, it was confusing for a lot of people. I think there was a movie that was supposed to go along with it, but if you really sit down and listen to the album, which I have being a Garth fan, it’s a great album.” Childish Gambino beautifully covered “Lost in You” earlier this year, and in 2015 Stevie Nicks and Don Henley dueted on the Gaines album track “It Don’t Matter to the Sun.”

Chris Meindl, the writer/producer/director of VH1’s Chris Gaines Behind the Music, tells Yahoo Entertainment, “The process of working with Garth on the special was one of the highlights of my career. He was a complete professional and a willing collaborator in the truest sense of those words. I always thought the music on that record was under-appreciated due to the novelty of the concept. It's nice to see the songs getting their due, albeit very belatedly. I'm also glad to see that some people actually enjoyed watching the special. At the time, along with the album, it received more than its share of ridicule.”

Fans are throwing a Chris Gaines anniversary party, Gainesfest: A Celebration of the Life of Chris Gaines, in Nashville this weekend, and while it’s unlikely that Brooks will attend himself, nowadays he is a good sport about this era of his career — as evidenced by his graciousness and sense of humor when fielding Gaines questions during Yahoo Entertainment’s longer interview about his 30-year career and the record-breaking sales for his seven-LP Legacy Vinyl Collection boxed set. Will In the Life of Chris Gaines ever get the deluxe vinyl reissue treatment? Will The Lamb ever hit the big screen? Will Chris Gaines ever return to Saturday Night Live? Read on.

Yahoo Entertainment: I just want to preface this question by saying I'm not asking this to be facetious. I'm not asking this in jest. I was actually a serious fan of the whole Chris Gaines project. I watched the fake Chris Gaines Behind the Music. I thought you were fabulous on SNL. I know that the movie that was supposed to be the companion to an album didn't come to fruition, which is why I think some people misunderstood what it was about.

Garth Brooks: [laughs] That's very sweet of you to say. A lot of people misunderstood it, and my ribs are still sore from getting the s*** kicked out of me for it. So, thank you for that.

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Well, I think it's kind of funny that people talk about that as being some sort of failure when it's sold something like 2 million copies and scored a top 10 hit — most artists would be very happy to have that sort of “failure.” But I was curious: In light of all these musical films coming out, is there ever a chance you would maybe think revisiting this project, maybe in a different way? Maybe you're not acting in it, maybe you just executive-produce The Chris Gaines Story. It was a good story, from what I saw in that Behind the Music mockumentary.

Thank you very much. Because you're so sweet to me, I didn't say "no" when I knew what you were going to ask. I thought I'd let you finish. But no, 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.

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Do you have any fond memories of the Chris Gaines experience?

What I enjoyed about it is you survive it, and [fans] are very sweet. And then all of a sudden you realize the people who got it, got it. And the people who never got it, never picked it up. So that makes me feel good, because I got to tell you, I'm surprised you brought this up, but everybody that ever does mention to me it says it's their favorite Garth Books album! I don't know how to take that! [laughs] But it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of work.

I don't know if you know this, but there is a website called GarthBrooksChrisGainescountdown.com. It's a countdown to the anniversary of when you held down double-duty on Saturday Night Live — as both the host, as yourself, and as the musical guest, “Chris Gaines.” It is a grassroots campaign to come back to SNL as Garth/Chris for the 20th anniversary of that event.

[laughs] That's great. I'll have to look that up!

A screenshot of the fan site www.garthbrookschrisgainescountdown.com.
A screenshot of the fan site www.garthbrookschrisgainescountdown.com.

You should! I might get involved in the cause! What about any other acting for you? I remember when you hosted SNL, there were two sketches that stood out to me when I thought, "Wow, this man can really act" — which is why I'm kind of bummed that the Chris Gaines movie never came out. One was the Mango sketch, in which you actually really genuinely seemed to be pining for Mango, played by Chris Kattan. The other is when you flubbed your line but then did this improv to fix it, and it was such a smooth move, so professional, that I thought you really should do more acting.

Yeah, that was the trailer park [skit]. And I got to tell you the kids, most of the younger people who come see the show talk about one where Will Ferrell is playing the devil. That was fun.

But no more acting or TV-hosting for you?

No. You know, I'm just not comfortable in the acting-type thing. It's fun to play around and stuff, but I really, where I really feel like ... you know when you go home and you get in your favorite pajamas and you lay down, and you take that breath under your favorite blanket? I get that feeling when I walk out onstage. That's where I really feel it.

I understand. Well, I know you just released this massive Garth Brooks vinyl collection, so I will put it out there that I would love for the Chris Gaines album to come out on vinyl at some point. Jet-black vinyl. It has to be black, right?

OK, I’ll just press one of them, and I will hand-deliver it to you. [laughs]

Oh my God, I swear I will never sell it on eBay! I will treasure it forever.

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