“Driftin’ Away” by Garth Brooks (as Chris Gaines) (1999)

Prior to 1991, most of music-biz America paid no attention to country music (this might be my New York bias kicking in). That spring, Billboard Magazine flipped a switch in regards to its chart methodology, and began to use actual point of sale data from record stores (previously, record stores would submit their own charts, which were–shall we say—very susceptible to manipulation on behalf of record labels). There were a few beneficiaries to this; alternative rock acts, hardcore rappers, and Garth Motherfucking Brooks. His first two albums, a self-titled debut and No Fences, rocketed up the charts. His first post-Soundscan release, Ropin’ The Wind, became the first album by a country artist to debut at #1 on Billboard’s overall album chart. To put it short, Garth was HUGE. He was outselling Mariah Carey. He was outselling Guns ‘n Roses. And Boyz II Men. And Michael Jackson. 

Since Garth’s heyday, Shania Twain and Taylor Swift proved that you could cross from country over to pop without really alienating your country audience (or, in Swift’s case, you’d sell so many records it wouldn’t matter whether you alienated your country audience or not). But country was an even more conservative world in the ‘90s than it is now, and while Garth made a few moves that seemed a bit to the left of typical country (covering Billy Joel, or standing up for gay rights, for instance), he stayed in his general lane. He apparently harbored a desire to make a true pop/rock album, but didn’t want to piss off the millions of country fans who dropped fifteen bucks on everything he put out.

Enter: The Lamb and Chris Gaines.

The Lamb was a movie developed to feature Garth. He was to play an Australian musician named Chris Gaines. Chris Gaines was not a country musician (although you can be Australian and sing country; just ask Keith Urban). Gaines was a pop star, and the music Brooks would be performing as Gaines would be pop music. Garth went through a lot of trouble creating this imaginary persona, and recorded an album of songs that would be presented to the public as “Chris Gaines’ Greatest Hits”. Oh my God, this is complicated. I’m already getting a headache.

The Brooks-as-Gaines record came out in late summer 1999, and didn’t meet the sales standards that had been set by previous Brooks records. The public appeared to be super-confused about the whole movie tie-in, and maybe they felt they were being roped into some bullshit, too? Because I’ve found no evidence that one scene from The Lamb was ever shot. So it feels to me kinda like all of this was created, smoke and mirrors style, just to give Garth Brooks a chance to make a not-country album and not piss off his country fans.

Why didn’t he have the integrity to just say “fuck it”, ditch the Chris Gaines character, and make the album as Garth Brooks? Especially since most of …In The Life Of Chris Gaines doesn’t stray incredibly far from Garth’s usual style of music?

I mean, here’s the thing: that Chris Gaines album is pretty decent. My friend Tom Erlewine gave it a good review in AllMusic Guide and what he writes pretty much agrees with anything I’d have to say about the album. Most of the content is country-flavored adult contemporary/soul in the Eric Clapton “Change The World” vein (actually, the guys that wrote “Change The World” had a hand in many of the songs on the Gaines album). …In The Life ultimately sounds like a fairly good Kenny Loggins album. Or a Babyface-produced Garth Brooks album.

“Driftin’ Away” is the Chris Gaines album’s best song. It’s a mournful ballad with an intriguing lyric and fantastic harmonies. I feel like Boyz II Men could’ve covered this around the same time and had a smash with it. Not that Garth did a bad job. Quite the contrary, actually.

A lot of people don’t realize how close country and soul music really are when you break it all down. Garth brings out the soulful timbre of his voice and knocks “Driftin’ Away” all the way the fuck out of the park. There’s a sustained note right before the fade out that kills me every time I hear it. It’s such a good song! I loved this song, and that album, so much that I went back and bought a bunch of Garth Brooks albums (OK, maybe like, two), thinking that I’d missed something. I really didn’t. His straight-up country stuff isn’t really my jam. But, man, I wish he’d made an album full of “Driftin’ Away”s.

Unfortunately (for me, anyway), he didn’t.

Unfortunately for you (maybe?), “Driftin’ Away” and the rest of the Chris Gaines album are nowhere on streaming services or even on YouTube. I feel like Garth might be a little embarrassed about that experiment blowing up in his face. Seriously, though, if he’d just put these songs out as GARTH BROOKS maybe they’d have sold more records? I mean, people aren’t stupid. Anyway, if you really wanna hear “Driftin’ Away”, go to your local record store or check Amazon, where I’m sure you can get the Chris Gaines CD for two bucks. Or less. It’s totally worth it, by the way.

 

 

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