Hank Williams recorded under the guise of Luke the Drifter in the early 1950s, Garth Brooks was Chris Gaines, and George Jones as a rockabilly singing duck. These are just a few of the alter egos country music has created. An alter ego is a second self – ‘the other I’. So what drives a recording artist to create an entirely new persona to market themselves?
A young singer, just out of the marines, migrated from Missouri to California in the early 1950s and began recording under the name Terry Preston. Ferlin Husky had created the stage name because he thought his given name was too rural-sounding. While he never had any success with the Preston alias, Husky would go on to create a comic foil in the form of Simon Crum. Crum was even signed a separate contract and had several hits of his own.
Likewise, George Jones began his career in 1955 with a string of hits for the small Starday label. After a move to Mercury in 1956, George began experiementing with a rockabilly sound (which was wildly popular at the time) as Thumper Jones. And though he had no real hits to speak of as a rockabilly artist, this chapter is still a necessary footnote in George Jones’ catalog. During his crazier, no-show years, Jones was also known to create characters for himself too. Legend has it that he performed an entire show in the voice of a duck character that sounded a lot like Donald Duck. Later, Jones referred to him as Dee-Doodle Duck. The duck didn’t score any hits for Jones either.
Luke the Drifter was born as a stage name for Hank Williams to release gospel recordings without hurting his popularity on the honky tonk – and therefore mainstream – circuit of the time. So it’s not as glamorous a tale as one would imagine. (Or as sad a southern heartbreaking tragedy, however you think the name should have evolved.) Unlike Husky, and even Jones at the time, Hank Williams was a giant figure in country music. His legend was already in place and that gave him the creative leeway to create another side of himself to market to the fans. This other side of Hank Williams, a soft-spoken singer recording mostly recitations and spiritual numbers, was in stark contrast to the tortured soul depicted in Hank’s country numbers. As a defining figure in the genre, Williams was at liberty to present more of the other side of his character in this new man, Luke the Drifter.
As Williams defined his own era, so did Garth Brooks. While his endeavor was born from the same spirit of creative expression that birthed Luke the Drifter, this other self was just as much about promotion and making Chris Gaines a well-known star in his own right. Garth took on the persona of Chris Gaines to promote an album and film he was producing. Garth even went so far as to host an episode of Saturday Night Live as himself with his wig-wearing, goateed rock and roll counterpart as the musical guest. I’m still reminded of Garth’s stint as Chris Gaines everytime I see a commercial for Criss Angel’s show Mindfreak. All this was to promote a movie/documentary about the rock star’s life, which was set to star Brooks in the lead. The film, tentatively titled The Lamb, never made it to production and the album sits in Brooks’ catalog as a puzzling addition.
The main difference between Brooks’ Chris Gaines character and those of the others is that Gaines was not just an extension of the artist he evolved from but a separate entity all his own. But because critics scoffed at him or the public simply didn’t understand his vision, Chris Gaines never came all the way into fruition. I always thought Garth could pull it off, but it seemed to me as though the naysayers kept that concept from flying high.
Still, other artists have began their careers using stage names they later dropped. Randy Travis recorded his first album as Randy Ray, which proved to be handy in securing his later deal with Warner Brothers. He had also released several singles as Randy Ray and under his birthname, Randy Traywick – none of which saw any success. It wasn’t until he recorded The Storms of Life as Randy Travis that his career took off. Later, when a young Travis Tritt came to town, the label suggested he change his name so people wouldn’t confuse the two. There are many more examples of this in country music too. But, stage names in country music don’t seem to be as popular as they used to be.
So we’ve found many reasons for a singer to record under 2 different names – be they for creative or monetary purposes. Sometimes it’s even just a matter of convenience or marketing. Whatever their reasons, sometimes a truly creative soul needs more than one outlet.
Note: Thanks to Paul W. Dennis and Razor X, who were my sources for a lot of this information.