Charlie Mars’s Times Have Changed
Charlie Mars lives on a gravel county road in the hill country of Yalobusha County, Mississippi. “I lived in Oxford, Mississippi, for many years. It’s a storied college town filled with lots of quirky and wonderful people. It was good to me for a long time, but the hills were calling me. When things shut down, I was around the house a lot. I fell in love with these Cane Corso Mastiff puppies on Instagram that this dude in Brazil was breeding, and I randomly made some money on a dog crypto coin called Shiba Inu. It was pure luck. I took it as a sign. Next thing I know, I’m at the Little Rock airport picking up a puppy from Brazil that would grow to be my best pal and a 135-pound handful. My brother found some land with a view and a weird house on it. My dog Kudzu could run around freely. I bought it. I started to write songs about my life out here.”
“It's all about connecting the circle,” Mars says. “I think modern life is about disconnecting the circle—or my modern was, life prior to this.” Though Mars says he still needs doses of travel and culture, life feels more honest—and definitely more satisfying—now that he’s back in touch with the land and his spirituality. He addresses both subjects repeatedly on the album, coming out October 6th on Foxgate Records.
Produced by Billy Harvey (Bob Schneider, Steve Poltz) and mixed by Tchad Blake (Sheryl Crow, the Black Keys) the 10 songs on Times Have Changed possess a lived-in quality, relatable because they express real experiences. Rooted in folk-pop, but nourished with country, soul, laid-back reggae grooves, and Mars’ love for the languid, understated style of producer Daniel Lanois’ Teatro-era work, they chronicle his path from a restless young wanderer seeking adventure, escape, love or truth, to the man who’s discovered that his road to happiness is a gravel drive leading to a porch perfect for viewing actual stars.
That’s spelled right out in “Country Home,” a charming, banjo- and harmonica-laden ode to livin’ like my papaw on the tractor / me bouncin’ on his knee / makin’ my way to the country store to find a little something sweet.
In the title song, co-written with Tyler Reeve, Mars waxes nostalgic for five-and-dimes and kids playing outside, then wonders, What happened to no sir, yes ma’am, lookin’ folks in the eye / to family, and the good lord, and thankin’ him every night?
But his lamentation over his own loss of community and good old-fashioned living reinforces what Mars loves about his rural locale, where people still live by those codes. He was so moved by a nearby dairy-farming family’s ideals, dedication, and determination, he featured them in a video for the song — then made a documentary about them called “Beautiful Country.”
“That set of values that I have so much respect for, they were instinctively living it,” he explains of the Brown family. Mars saw himself reflected in his neighbor’s quest to follow his dreams, despite the hardships.
He explores that concept further on the tender, fiddle-sweetened opening track, “Gotta Lotta Love,” in which he sings of finding freedom, serenity, and gratitude through forgiveness, then declares, I don’t have time tryin’ to be somethin’, tryin’ to be somethin’ I’m not. I keep workin’ hard when the money dries up / just a little hot coffee for my silver cup / I got a lot, got a lotta love.
That one slowly evolved from a song he’d written with Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer (“Kiss Me”), but Mars wrote “Country Home” and “Silver Dollar,” his “Americana ’80s ballad,” on the same day — to his surprise.
“Silver Dollar,” a love song that swells into a tune perfect for stadium sing-alongs, grew from an encounter with another neighbor who came around to investigate a loud disturbance (the source: a dog fight). “I heard an echo in my holler,” the neighbor said. Mars thought that “country phrase for fear” sounded so beautiful, he walked his somewhat battered dog home and immediately turned it into a song. Then he went to the feed store, bought grass fertilizer, came back and wrote “Country Home.
The recurring themes of home and family even permeate the tropics-spiced “My Tahitian Phone,” in which Mars imagines himself living Jimmy Buffett’s lush life after being invited to audition for his Broadway musical before replacing the fantasy with a simpler dream: domestic happiness.
He bravely confesses his shortcomings, too, particularly in “Cold Shoulder” and “To See You Smile.” The former is a beautiful, heart-rending plea for understanding in which he sings, All these angry words mean is don’t leave me, don’t leave me alone. The latter, written with David Borne, slips into an easy groove that belies Mars’ longing as he sings, When you got love you turn your back on it / but when it’s out of reach, you hit the ground runnin’ / For any love, you can find. Oh Jesus, bless this human heart of mine.
Mars penned the ethereal ballad, “Don’t You Want to Know Me,” with Dan Tyminski, of Alison Krauss’s band, Union Station. Krauss has recorded a not-yet-released version of the tune, which suggests that only real honesty leads to true intimacy.
“What can I say? It’s been a prodigal journey for me. Besides chasing a good song, I’m learning how to live in the country. Fortunately, I have great neighbors to guide me along the path. What more can you ask for?”