The artist formerly known as Garth

Here's the question Garth Brooks has to ask himself: Can a man who cries onstage be taken seriously as a rock 'n' roll singer?

If this country-western superstar has his way - and so far in his career, he appears to have most of the time - the answer is yes. But just in case, he's putting a toe in these new waters with his trademark mix of masterly marketing and beguiling modesty.

Brooks's latest venture casts him as a mere interpreter of the greatest hits of a fictional rock superstar, Chris Gaines. In its initial stages, the outing consists of an NBC TV special Sept. 29, "Garth Brooks ... In the Life of Chris Gaines," to coincide with a CD release of the same title. A movie, entitled "The Lamb," is slated for later.

In this role, he performs what are essentially new songs echoing every great stage of rock from the past four decades. Think Bob Dylan meets Aerosmith meets Prince meets Don Henley meets The Rolling Stones.

Confused yet? It's really simple.

Brooks hired a phalanx of top songwriters to create the new "old" tunes. In the special, he performs as his balding Garth Brooks self, minus the 10-gallon hat. But he pounds out the songs with the conviction of a man who believes a new chapter is dawning.

"Some guy just asked me for my towel," he declares after a particularly aerobic number. "I love that little voice that says, 'Welcome to L.A.!' " In a classic rock gesture, he drapes himself over his lead guitarist as if to say, "I've been waiting for this moment my whole life."

But backstage during a break, he squelches the suspicion that his comfy, good-old-boy persona has been nothing but a cover for a closet rock star wannabe. "There's no rock 'n' roller trying to get out," he says, plucking at his balding pate that contrasts sharply with his alter ego's bushy head of hair. "I've stood in front of the mirror with a hairbrush just as much as the next guy," he laughs. "But that's not me."

So why try to rock the millions of fans he has comfortably cradled in his country-western hands?

"It's a challenge," he says simply. "I don't regard it as a switch, just a stretch." However, he is mindful of the fact that not all his fans are ready to stretch that far. He says to his studio audience, "There are three things I've depended on: God, my music, and you guys."

In the TV special, he pulls out his trusty guitar and sings a few signature country-western songs. But the performance also taps a new and enjoyable dimension of music for Brooks, who is still married to his college sweetheart.

"When you're square," Brooks says, "and you hang out with hip people," he explains with a quick, knowing smile, "people will see you as hip." Brooks, who is one of the top recording artists of the century, doesn't need new conquests. He has 2 Grammys, 13 American Music Awards, 11 Country Association Music Awards, 16 Academy of Country Music Awards, 5 World Music Awards, 10 People's Choice Awards, and 24 Billboard Music Awards (whew!).

In a recent TV biography, he noted that the most meaningful moment in his professional life so far has been his induction into Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. But still, there's something about the pull of Hollywood that even a star at his zenith can't resist.

The project began when Paramount Pictures approached him to do the coming film and the music for "The Lamb," a fictional rock bio. Film is a natural fit for Brooks, according to a co-writer, Pat Algar.

"He's very visual in the way he thinks," Mr. Algar says. In part, the project appealed to Brooks because it was a way to get into filmmaking. The Oklahoma native says, "Music is what I do," but says filmmaking is a logical step for a recording artist who has never regarded himself as a singer.

"I don't do beautiful voice singing," says Brooks, who says he's no Michael Bolton in that regard. Rather, he says, he has taken his producer's advice.

And what is that? "Just tell the story," says the biggest-selling solo artist in American music history, with more than 95 million albums sold since 1989.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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