Charlie Mars finds new inspiration in Nashville collaborations

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By Mary Houlihan | For the Sun-Times

The songs of Charlie Mars straddle a blurry line between Americana and country. So it’s really no surprise when the singer-songwriter says his next album will have a definite country flavor.

Mars has recently spent time in Nashville collaborating on songs with some of the town’s best writers — Jennifer Nettles, Dan Tyminski, James Slater and Lucie Silvas. It’s a process new to Mars and one that he’s enjoying after many years of going it alone.

THE BODEANS With: Charlie Mars When: 8 p.m. Nov. 7 Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Tickets: $30-$75 Info: (312) 294-3000; cso.org

“It’s been really inspiring to work with other people,” Mars says by phone from a tour stop in New Mexico. “I think it’s made me a better songwriter. I was kind of a punk about it when I was younger. I didn’t want anybody telling what to do. But I’ve mellowed a bit so it’s fun to work with somebody who brings something fresh to the table.”

The Nashville 9-to-5 routine — go in, write a song, go home — turned out to be an appealing surprise to Mars. “I think I get a lot more done that way,” he says. “Inspiration comes when you put pen to paper. Not every time but more than when you sit around and wait for it.”

Mars, who is in his early 40s, has spent the past two decades honing his music, which features a soulful vocal style, strong grooves, catchy harmonies and poignant lyrics. His last three albums — “Like a Bird, Like a Plane“ (2009), “Blackberry Light” (2012) and “The Money” (2014) — were all recorded in Austin, Texas, with producer Billy Harvey and a core group of musicians. He likes to refer to them as “my Texas trilogy,” each gaining more critical success for the singer-songwriter.

Mars will be performing solo when he opens for The BoDeans at Symphony Center. He discovered how great a single acoustic instrument can sound when he did a stadium tour last year across Canada with the Dixie Chicks.

“A lot of my show is also storytelling along with the songs,” Mars says. “So I feel if you have a good story, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 people or 50,000, the intimacy of a solo performance will work.”

A seventh-generation Mississippian on both sides of his family, Mars, who speaks with a lazy Southern lilt, grew up in Laurel, a small town in the center of the state, and now lives in Oxford. There was always music around but mostly in the way of any typical family — on the radio and in church. It was in high school when he met some older musicians he looked up to that things began to take off.

“They had guitars and played in bands and I wanted to be like them,” Mars recalls. “So I got a guitar for Christmas and the rest is history.”

These players also turned their young friend on to a lot of the music he still listens to today — REM, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young.

“It was kind of a badge of honor to listen to music that has a cerebral quality to it,” Mars adds. “We read books and we sought out music that might have some sort of answer or meaning that was deeper than most popular music.”

Growing up in the south did influence his songwriting but not in the traditional ways except one.

“I wasn’t sneaking across the tracks and going to blues clubs and drinking moonshine,” Mars says. “I wasn’t influenced by much except in church. The religious and spiritual aspect of music was something that really resonated with me when I was young.”

A new album will soon be the focus of Mars’ attention (“I have a vision and a lot of songs”), but in the meantime he’s set to release a holiday tune, “Minnesota,” viathe Internet. “It mentions December and snow and feels appropriate,” Mars says. He also has a small part as a harmonica player in the upcoming Matthew McConaughey movie “The Free State of Jones” about a Mississippi farmer who leads a group of rebels against the Confederate Army.

“I’m actually from Jones County so it felt appropriate,” Mars says. “It was cool to be a part of that Southern story.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

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