The Money, the final volume in Charlie Mars’ Texas trilogy, opens with a scene of cinematic vividness. “Looking out a rainy window/In a hotel in Caroline/Drinking free coffee, smoking that smoke/From an apple by the exit sign.” He called the song “Hell Yeah,” a Rebel yell from this Oxford, Mississippi, resident not of celebration but of recognition. Maybe you, too, have found yourself far from home and feeling very alone, seeking relief in the substances at hand, exhaling out the open window as a practical measure. In those four lines, jotted down in a Hampton Inn in Greenwood, South Carolina, moments later, we find Mars (or a protagonist who closely resembles him) resuming his zigzagging trek through the darkness in search of the light. It’s a theme as old as The Odyssey, laid out in crisp contemporary verse over a lowdown, hickory-smoked backbeat, in the tradition of fellow Southern minimalists Tony Joe White and J.J. Cale.
The Texas trilogy (so named because the first two albums were cut in Austin, the latest one at Sonic Ranch outside of El Paso, all with Billy Harvey as producer and core musicians J.J. Johnson, John Ginty, and George Reiff) began with the ironically titled Like a Bird, Like a Plane, released in 2009, two years after the record label Mars had been signed to went out of business, leaving him no choice but to go DIY. It was the best thing that ever happened to Charlie because, out of necessity, 12 years and five albums into his career, he found his true voice, just as he was beginning to experience life more fully. His eyes were opened to culture and possibility while spending much of the last half-decade in New York and Austin, hastening his artistic and personal maturation, reflected in the songs that were coming out of him along the way.