Mississippi native Charlie Mars recently wrapped up his ‘Texas trilogy” album series with The Money, a smoky, low-key country/folk record that takes a serious look back at his boyhood years. We chatted with Mars about lifeguards, levees and Esquire‘s Songwriting Challenge, the creative competition that he came up with several years ago.
How would you describe your new album?
The guy who wrote my bio for the album called it “crisp, contemporary verse over a lowdown, hickory-smoked backbeat, in the tradition of fellow Southern minimalists Tony Joe White and J.J. Cale.” I’m not exactly sure who Tony Joe White is but I like his name. The rest sounds pretty right to me.
You’ve called it the final installment of a “Texas trilogy.” Is there a thematic link between the albums beside geography?
The players. I used a core group of musicians on all three records: J.J. Johnson on drums, George Reiff on bass, John Ginty on keys, and Billy Harvey on guitar and serving as producer. I’d say all three albums are characterized by restraint, economy of language, and emphasis on groove. Also, Texas seems to stand alone. I think I have to stand alone a good bit. I relate to that.
Did growing up in Mississippi have an effect on your songwriting?
I fell in with a group of guys when I was in high school who listened to 60’s and 70’s folk as well as 80’s college rock like REM and The Pixies. That had a huge effect. I went to church every week and the spiritual power of music certainly got in my bones there. I’ve always loved the Blues, but I’m a tourist in that country. R.L. Burnside certainly found the world boogie. I love his groove.
What was it like to hear your songs on shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Parenthood?”
It’s amazing to me when a song starts as this little thing and winds up on such a massive stage. I love the endless possibilities of song. I love it when my songs make it to a movie or a tv show and the vibe is right. The debt collectors like it to.
How did you come up with the idea for Esquire Magazine’s Songwriting Challenge, which was a round robin of sorts?
I had been at the Shack Up Inn around Clarksdale, MS, and thought it would be a great place for a collage of songwriters and photos. I suggested it to David Granger at a party, and my friend Andy Langer suggested we all write a song with a phrase they gave us. That was borrowed from Bob Schneider’s songwriting game…and thus the Songwriter Challenge was born.
What got you to pick up the guitar?
A lifeguard who worked at the pool who was looking right through me.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Warren Zevon. Jackson Browne. CSNY. Bill Withers. JJ Cale.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I think it was called “Levee Side”. It was about looking into a girl’s eyes by the levee…and desire. I don’t think much has changed.
How do you go about writing songs?
I usually write on my piano at home. I bought a Steinway upright a few years ago after a fortuitous trip to Vegas. I also write alot in hotel bathrooms. I like the way acoustic guitars sound in the bathroom. I start with a feeling and find music that feels right. The rest just trickles down from there.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I was an English major in college and come from a school where lyrics are a huge part of the song…so I try to dodge cliches and reach for the heart of things without using too many words. I try to say a lot with a little. What would Mark Strand do?
What sort of things inspire you to write?
I’m often inspired to write about things that happen but I don’t understand. Why do we hurt the people we love? Why do I hurt myself when I could choose not to? What is pride doing to me and the people around me? I’m always amazed by the contradictions.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m proud of the title track “The Money”. It has a complete feel to it that just flows on by when I sing it… like it was always there. I like that its a serious song that makes me smile.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
Hayes Carll and I wrote a song together about a beautiful lady who brought her 25 year old daughter to the merch booth. The song is called “Things You Don’t Wanna Know” and the line says:
I wanted to get with you
But now I wanna get with your daughter
That one makes me smile.
Are there any words you love or hate?
Not a big fan of “declined”.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
People come up to me all the time and tell me they played “I do, I do” when they got married. I love that. That song is so tender.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Bob Marley. Definitely Bob Marley.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Even though he gets a good bit of love…I’d say Ron Sexsmith is better than the love he gets.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
“Say It Aint So” by Rivers Cuomo. That bridge just slays me. Accesible. Vivid details. A total punisher. And a party. I wish it was mine.