By the Way

How Laurel’s Charlie Mars made the biggest country album of his career

Laurel native Charlie Mars will kick off the 25th annual Crawfish Music Festival on Friday at the Coast Coliseum.
Laurel native Charlie Mars will kick off the 25th annual Crawfish Music Festival on Friday at the Coast Coliseum. Courtesy

It’s a shame Charlie Mars isn’t a household name. Mars is a native of Laurel, he graduated from Jackson Prep and he’s lived in Oxford for several years. He’s been making albums for some 20-plus years now.

He’s dated actress Mary-Louise Parker and he’s played shows with everyone from REM to the Dixie Chicks. And after two decades of recording and touring, Mars is on the verge of of breaking out — that is, if country radio in whatever form it exists is willing to take the chance on him and his music.

This all hinges on his new album. The soon-to-be released “Beach Town” is his most accessible of his career, but it’s also a collection of very personal songs. Just because “She Ain’t Coming Back” sounds radio-ready with its singalong chorus doesn’t mean there’s not an underlying honesty and sadness that permeates the song. You can’t fake heartbreak.

“Beach Town” is Mars’ answer, although inadvertently and not deliberately, to Eric Church’s breakout 20011 album, “Chief.” It’s an album about love, loss and life on the Gulf Coast after the tourists have gone away for the year.

You know that feeling of going to the FloraBama on a cool day in November and watching the Alabama–Mississippi State football game? This is that album. While Church made his nods to listening to Springsteen in rural Carolina, Mars finds his inner Jimmy Buffett — the Buffett of songs like “Come Monday,” not the one whose fans like to consume rum drinks out of fake coconuts.

“Beach Town” is the album that should launch Mars, who will kick off the 2017 Crawfish Music Festival on Thursday on the grounds of the Coast Coliseum, into the country radio stratosphere. Its first five tracks, “She Ain’t Coming Back,” “Dream Kitchen,” “Island Time,” “Country Song” and the title track, “Beach Town,” are all hit singles just waiting for radio play. And though Mars certainly isn’t cocky about his latest album, he has a lot of confidence in the steps he took to bring it to fruition.

“I recorded it in Austin,” he said in an interview with the Sun Herald. “It’s much more conducive for me to record in Austin than to try and bring everybody to Mississippi.”

He said he’s been releasing singles on the AAA (adult album alternative) which includes stations such as WZEW in Mobile.

“I’ve been working at that format for a decade,” he said. “And I base my touring on where the singles are doing well — in 2008, I had a AAA programmer take a chance on my song ‘Listen to The Darkside’ and if he had not done that, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now because I went from having 50 people at my shows to 750.”

He said he plans to release “She Ain’t Coming Back,” the first song on “Beach Town,” as the album’s lead single.

“It’s left-of-the-dial enough to fit in on AAA radio but it sounds commercial enough to be on country radio,” he said.

The songs for “Beach Town” were written in Nashville with collaborators such as Bonnie Bishop and Jeff Cohen.

“The songs were written because my girlfriend wanted me to come off the road and move to Nashville and write songs and get one picked up by a major recording artist so we could settle down,” he said.

He said he wrote 150 songs during his time in Nashville.

“In 125 of them, I’m singing about beer and tractors and all of this other bull---t because you have to in Nashville,” he said. “But then there were days when I would be going through something and I would want to write about that, but because we were writing all of these songs for commercial radio, we made sure that the melodies were there and that it had a big chorus and that it had a bridge and the structure was classic — what you have with ‘Beach Town’ is a guy that’s pouring his heart out through a prescribed set of rules.”

If you go

What: 25th annual Crawfish Music Festival featuring Delbert McClinton and Charlie Mars

When: 5-11 p.m. Friday

Where: Grounds of the Coast Coliseum

Tickets: Start at $4 and are available at Ticketmaster.com.

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