Charlie Mars was on my radar because he is from Mississippi and is said to be a good storyteller. I was asked to interview him before the Blueberry Sessions began at Weeks Bay Plantation. A week later I ran into him in a hotel lobby in Nashville during AmericanaFest while he was trying to fix the zipper on his jacket. We talked about becoming spiritually happy to receive the connection and joy of playing for an audience. He tried many of the wrong ways first and they didn’t work.
Charlie is curating the new Blueberry Sessions at Weeks Bay Plantation and plays there on Thursday, October 5. If that series goes well, he could be spending more time here. He also plays at The Listening Room on November 8.
TSR: You are the first person who has brought a book to an interview. Do you read a lot?
CharIie: I was an English major in college and once lived next door to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. There is not a better bookstore. If I am out of sorts or on tour, I can’t read because I have to be serene to read.
TSR: Does the book mean you are serene right now?
Charlie: I am serene and in a good place. I am doing more meditation and being in my own skin. I write all of the time, whether I feel like it or not because writing is better when I am out of sorts. Writing is the distraction, the life preserver and the outlet that takes the focus off how insane I am. You are neurotic, dysfunctional and trying to work it out, but it never gets worked out. Pain has a way of bending things. When you are in pain, normalcy is always an illusion. I am driven towards serenity. To find a way to breathe easy and have honest, meaningful relationships.
TSR: Does performing provide that serenity?
Charlie: No. Performing is the drug and for a little while, I am not in my head. Adrenaline and attention are drugs. You get up there all of a sudden you are in control of an uncontrollable world and you can create safety through the control.
I have to keep going down this road to be spiritually happy so I can enjoy life. I have tried it all and have seen what fame looks like from the inside. My ex was a movie star. I have been around moneyed people and drug addicts, criminals who live in the underground and transvestites. I have played in front of 50,000 people and it feels great, but six hours later it is “Am I still the same guy? Didn’t that change anything?” I want to feel spiritually better and write songs from the deepest place all of the time.
If I sense someone doesn’t like me or I am scared or intimidated I shut down and go to the ego. They don’t like me? Forget ‘em. But you lose out on the connection and joy.
TSR: How has performing changed for you?
Charlie: I try to let the audience know that I sympathize with them as human beings and I try to make sure there is a moment that “I love you” breaks down the wall, even if it is for a little bit. I used to create the wall. I wanted the attention and to exude and emote, but I didn’t want to be engulfed. Now I want to connect and make sure they don’t walk away feeling like they didn’t have a moment where they felt it. The connection is the part I am seeking first and foremost. When the connection happens, it is a beautiful thing.
TSR: What are other ways connections happen for you?
Charlie: A year ago a friend told me he thought his cancer was coming back. I was overwhelmed and reached out and we held hands and talked. That is the moment I am going to think about for the rest of my life, not the 800 times we partied together, but the 30 seconds I let him know that it was devastating. That is everything. If you can’t get to that as a performer, you are never going to get the gift. The gift is very scary.
TSR: What happened when you quit drinking?
Charlie: I have been clean for 18 years. Quitting drinking was just one thing. There was a lot of things to wade through after the drinking that were just as damaging and kept me from the place that I am terrified to go and I seek the most. We all are the same. Everything says to surrender to Jesus or the cosmos. They all say to let go, but all of us are trying to be in control. There is no greater example of that than in the music business. The power, the adrenaline, the fame, the idea that you are special. Adoration gives you adrenaline and makes the pain go away. I lived off that battery for years. I get it. We all battle our egos and do things for selfish reasons at times, but you have to constantly be seeking that other thing. If you don’t, you won’t get the gift. You will just be in some puppet show that is like a Shakespearean play about your ego until you are dead.
TSR: Define the gift.
Charlie: Connection and surrender, but you are the vehicle. That is the fun part. I want to be a craftsman and relay honesty poetically. What does that mean? Good poetry is rooted in describing the human experience that genuinely hits the nail on the head. Genre is an illusion. My songs are just chords, melody and lyrics. You could make the song country, jazz, blues, folk, pop. It is just how you produce it. It is just trying to portray honesty through a craft. Only a handful of people are capable of doing it well.
TSR: What does being from Mississippi mean to you?
Charlie: I love being from Mississippi. There isn’t any pretense and it isn’t super cool but you can just be around nature and people. You don’t have to be in some sort of game. There is a syrupy flow and emphasis on language and storytelling that is part of the history of it. I picked it up from my grandfather. It is a bullshitter, swagger, humorous, sarcastic thing. I lived in Manhattan and other cities and I don’t get as much out of an urban environment as I do fishing, walking in the woods or watching a bluebird land on a bush in Mississippi. Small-town Mississippi is a pretty rigid environment the way religion pervades the culture but it was acceptable to write a song and express how you felt. The first time I had that experience, I was 14 or 15 and it felt great because I could be honest and not have to stick to the rigid rules. It also allowed me to be accepted as a new kid at school. When I got to college, I didn’t know anyone, but I met Jack Ingram and started playing with him and he knew a lot of people that became my network of friends. Music has always been my way of finding my village or tribe.
TSR: What is your tribe now?
Charlie: I have never been in a club or on a team or an organized event since I was an adult because it is about trust. The minute I am part of a collective thing I will start thinking collectively and I don’t want to do that. I only feel safe if I can look at it from the outside where I can see clearly but that is not healthy and not what I need in my life. It is the opposite of what I am seeking. I have to get over it and be a part of it
I have been putting myself out there more during the last year but it is scary and there is a lot of rejection. Most people find subtle ways to show you they aren’t open to the energy you are putting out. It is easy to shut down and be a jerk.
Human nature does not to want to feel pain or shame. I hope in the coming years I will be a better performer and better at letting go even if I feel pain or shame. But I am having to be very disciplined in taking care of myself so I can be in that place. I eat healthy things, I go for a walk in the woods. I do anything that I think will be a healthy choice. I need to be in a place of open energy if the audience is ready to receive it. It’s not cleverness or a great story. It is a great song.
TSR: Is music still fun for you?
Charlie: All of this is pretty heavy shit. There is also a flip side to what I do. I like to have fun and eat at different places and entertain people and tell funny stories. At the end of the day, I like to play songs and give a little joy.
TSR: Why did you move to New Orleans?
Charlie: I love New Orleans and have friends there and got a place that wasn’t too expensive and it is still close to my parents and my nephews. However, New Orleans is a mystery to me. I quit playing there 10 years ago because I couldn’t grow an audience there. I like being close to the water and going fishing at Grand Isle of Venice or Gulf Shores.
TSR: What is the story behind the new album, Beach Town?
Charlie: In the last two to three years I have tried to find out what is underneath everything and think about it. What is the nature of all things? My logo is the skull because living a primal experience in nature is the gateway to human happiness. My songwriting reflects that. Beachtown is about keeping things natural and honest. My songs are recorded with actual players in the room, no gimmicks. I play acoustic guitar because it feels closer to the heart.
I believe that some of our problems happen because we are all distracted and not paying attention to nature. Nature is the voice of God. The harmony of two colors working together and the energy flows. Great songs are like that. It feels effortless. When I wrote my best songs, I was in the energy.
It is not beach Margaritaville. It is the beach and currents without the mirage created by capitalism that destroys the spirit of humans. We want the illusion of safety and power that comes with money. Money doesn’t do what you think. What is underneath? What is the skull? Where is the primitive? The primitive is, “I am not going to live the lie. I am going to find something else.”
The song “Beach Town” is about a beach when everyone leaves in the winter and capitalism and all of the things that get in the way with the connection are gone. You are left with the locals and nature. I went to the beach when I played at spring break in Destin. 5,000 kids on the beach and I was the only one in the water because everyone else thought it was too cold but I had a view from the outside looking in. People want comfort and don’t want the pain.
TSR: Does that explain why you take ice baths?
Charlie: Yes. I do ice submersion for seven or eight minutes, take a hot shower and get back in for five more minutes. The ice bath is Mother Nature. When you get in, you want to immediately get out because you don’t want to be uncomfortable. If you stay in, your body realizes you won’t die and the gift is the refreshment, but the next time you have the opportunity you don’t want to do it again. It comes back to am I willing to surrender and get the gift or am I going to stay comfortable, keep hiding and feeding my ego. It gets you to the egoless place where you aren’t in control.
TSR: How did you get involved with the Blueberry Sessions at Weeks Bay Plantation?
Charlie: I was approached about the Blueberry Sessions, said yes, and here we are. I am learning to say yes because what is the point of rejecting people and not getting involved? I am excited about curating this experience. If people feel the earnestness they will show up and if that area feels spiritually right for what I am doing, I will want to do more.
Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne playing at the Blueberry Sessions on Thursday, November 2 is going to be a big one. I lived next door to Allison Moorer and Steve Earle in Manhattan when they were married and I have toured with Shelby so I reached out directly to them and they are coming. They are excited about playing back home, they just wanted someone to call and ask them. I know all of the troubadours and we want to create something that can keep going and bring national people through.
TSR: You are also about to play your fourth show at The Listening Room on November 8 and are building a following there.
Charlie: I love the Listening Room and Jim is so sweet with no pretense. He has a grinding job at the shipyard and is doing this because he loves it. Jim is sincere. That is all I care about. I hope to build an audience through this Fairhope experience that will also build an audience for what he is doing. I am excited about all of it.