Charlie Marks is a singer-songwriter and old-time musician from the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Reno, Nevada. Offering a mix of traditional old-time and blues tunes that Marks discovered through their love of artists such as Elizabeth Cotten and Ola Belle Reed, as well as introspective original songs drawn from the life Marks lives navigating the beautiful landscapes of our country. Marks is a source of undeniable joy and through our conversation sheds light on how one traverses life’s hardships and conveys the complex facets of the human experience. From discussing the rich backdrops of the Sierra Nevada; to the inspiration behind their beautiful, lyrical prose; to battling a potential life altering rheumatism, Marks discusses the highs and lows in this exclusive interview.
Americana Highways: We are approaching the release of your fourth album called Three Years’ Time. From the package single that has been released from the new project containing the title track and a song called, “Our Tomorrow,” it sounds like this next album is going to be a personal one. To start things off, I want to talk about the single, “Our Tomorrow,” and the philosophy behind it – that sharing a dream with someone can actually help in making the dream a reality. What is the story of that song?
Charlie Marks: For a lot of my songs I can’t say that I sit down to write a song. I just play music and all of a sudden, the guitar melody brought the words along with it. For a long time, I was always doing things on my own and I was pretty good at having a vision for what I wanted. I think we all have the right to follow our dreams, or whatever we want to make happen in this world. If we got to do it by ourselves, then we got to do it that way, but it is a hell of a lot better and more fun and more fulfilling when we get to do it with other folks. That song was kind of like navigating this transition in my life where I had gone from having to fulfill my vision of what I wanted to do in this life by myself to doing it with somebody. Along the way there are good friends – that song is kind of framed about an intimate relationship, like a partner or spouse or girlfriend, but I’ve also learned a lot along the road that I have had lots of friendships that have felt really good, but the things that we want in life in the long run are so different from one another that it is not a friendship that is going to stand the test of time. I’ve had some that have fallen apart or fallen away that I still feel sad about, and don’t always know why it happened that way, and this song was kind of a way of navigating that feeling; figuring out that maybe what we wanted in the long run – visions and dreams – weren’t in alignment. A lot of things are going on in that song, for sure.
AH: Your music is reflective and draws from traditions of the past, including folk music and old-time. Let’s discuss your relationship with these traditions. At what point in your life did you become familiar with folk music? What instrument did you pick up first?
CM: Growing up I always had an electric guitar. I got one of those Fender Squires when I was 11 or 12. I always wanted to play music, and I was always really drawn to singing, but most of the time growing up I never really saw a route that made sense for me as a performer. I had it in me. I’ve psychoanalyzed myself a few times and know that singing always felt like a route that I could be heard, where growing up I never really felt super heard. I think when I was 22, I was quite depressed, and I saw that Coen Brothers’ movie Inside Llewelyn Davis and that movie kind of, as a rather depressed 22-year-old who aspired to be some kind of singer – there was a lot to connect to in that movie. And, that movie is loosely based around Dave Van Ronk’s life. I went home, picked up my guitar for the first time in a really long time and spent time trying to learn how to play “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” That little simple Travis picking pattern. It took me months and months figuring out how to play it, let alone sing it. And, I kind of had a pretty deep relationship with Dave Van Ronk’s music from there, and he would mostly play traditional tunes. He made a lot of things famous, like Bob Dylan recorded “House of the Rising Sun.” There was a nonconsensual passage of that song from one person to another. Bob Dylan may have jumped the gun recording that before Dave Van Ronk had the chance to, but from there I was playing guitar and I met a buddy who played banjo. I liked the sound of it so much I picked it up. I found one at a pawn shop when I moved down to San Diego. My buddy, who would play banjo with me while I played guitar, said, “you should learn how to play clawhammer style.” It turned out that I play the guitar in the same way – I kind of clawhammer strum the guitar on accident and I had no idea. When I started playing banjo, all of a sudden, things started clicking. Admittedly, on the guitar, I always wanted to play Mississippi John Hurt tunes or Elizabeth Cotten tunes. You kind of go down that rabbit hole, and I couldn’t play it out on guitar, but it was easier to figure out on the banjo. That set me down the path of other banjo players – folks like Roscoe Holcomb, and that was where I heard the singing style where I was like you just let it all loose. It’s an all-consuming way to experience and playing music. It just really resonated with the how I experience music.
AH: I saw where you posted a video of “June Apple” that you learned from a Riley Baugus recording. Riley is a musician here in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina. One thing that I love about old-time music is that it is so far reaching and that it continues to make an impact on people all around the world. What is it like learning a tune from a particular song and making it your own? Has anyone told you that they learned a tune from you and maybe play it in your style?
CM: Yeah, I have folks reach out saying that they learned a song from me. Admittedly, I post lessons online of how to play songs, because I’m trying to figure out how to make this music living a reality in having this be the work that I do in life, so teaching was something that I invested a lot of time in early on. It’s really special when someone reaches out to you and says, “I learned your version. I learned it the way you play it.” That’s really special because I know that I didn’t make any of this stuff up. I’m just playing what feels right to me. I think being grounded in where you learn things from is an important thing. I think all music flows out of a tradition. We are our own people, so originality pops up naturally when we let ourselves be part of the music tradition in a natural way. For me, a lot of the source recordings that I learned from – I’m not good at listening to a source recording and playing something exactly like somebody else. I think every song has its own energy to it. You kind of recognize that song, so with “June Apple” there’s a melody regardless of how you play it, the melody is there. I’m drawn to versions of songs where I feel like the melody is expressed in a way that I can feel it for myself. Oftentimes when I learn a song from somebody else, I’ll listen to their version, and then I’ll play it back as I go along, but I’ll just let myself start trying to play what feels the same. You go to an old-time jam and somebody calls for “Angeline the Baker,” and you could have four fiddle players playing it kind of different and it all sounds right. It’s not like anybody is playing it wrong. I really like that about old-time music where I don’t feel like it’s about how good you can do anything, but how you can tap into the music and be a part of it.
AH: There’s something magnetic about old-time music that always makes me want to dance. It was a special moment to get to flatfoot to you playing “Angeline The Baker” in Winston-Salem a while back. What are some of your favorite old-time songs to play and what are your sources for them?
CM: Admittedly, “Angeline the Baker” is like one of the most infectious melodies. It’s so damn happy. I’ve met some folks who I feel like they know every song, and every variation. My old-time knowledge pales in comparison to a lot of people. I like a lot of real happy, fun dance tunes like “Fly Around,” and “Angeline.” I was excited when I finally found a fiddle player who knew “Bill Cheatham,” I really like to play that one on the banjo. I played “Fly Around” at a jam – somebody brought it up, and I thought it was so much fun. Everybody was singing. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but I feel like at some jams people are more comfortable singing and others are more instrumental, but at this one, everyone was singing like crazy. I found Ola Belle’s version of “Fly Around.” That’s so much fun. I learned this one from Riley – I don’t know if you’d call it old-time because Ola Belle wrote it, but I’ve been playing “Undone in Sorrow” a lot in my sets. I think that’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I feel like if people don’t play it, then who’s going to listen to it? I feel very strongly about Ola Belle Reed, speaking of North Carolina foothills. She’s one of my favorites. I love the way she approaches playing banjo. It’s kind of your straight forward clawhammer, but the melodies are really clear, and also just the way she sings with it, too.
AH: This is taking a step back, but what was it like to transition from a record heavily laced with interpretations of tradition songs like on your debut, Honey Baby, to the more introspective original songs found on Unbecoming? How different was it approaching that project for you?
CM: It’s interesting, I feel like a lot of my content, because we are all forced to be content creators now, kind of focuses on banjo and old-time stuff. I’ve always been writing angsty songs and poetry. In my mind, it feels very connected. I feel like I’m tapping into a similar source. I think we need songs, music, and art because they let us express something that was hard to express before, or a feeling that is hard to tap into without it. A lot of the traditional songs do a great job. I think in our lives, we have a lot of experiences that are really hard to capture with anything that has ever been created before, especially in this world where I feel like our grandparents lived in a totally different world than we live in now. That kind of thing. We have to get these feelings out somehow, and name the things that we are experiencing. For me, original tunes don’t feel like they come from a different place from the traditional ones. During Unbecoming, I was really learning at that time how to finger pick the guitar better. The training for that album was playing Elizabeth Cotten tunes and Mississippi John Hurt tunes. Learning how to play “Freight Train” and “Spike Driver Blues.” For me, there’s this clear overlap between the two. By learning to play the instruments the way that other people passed down, just by virtue of them being recorded and having access to it, then all of a sudden, I was able to bring something of myself to it. For some reason writing my own songs on guitar has always felt easier, but lately I have actually been writing on the banjo more.
AH: You have captured some of the most beautiful landscapes in the photographs that you take and share online. I believe that a sense of place can stimulate creativity. Can you describe where you live and how being there may actually reinforce your music?
CM: I live a couple of ridges over from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, north of Reno, Nevada. So, it’s kind of this mix of rolling hills and mountains and desert. We are surrounded by sagebrush. Where there’s mountains, there’s water, so it’s a very full of life place. I have some poetry that has been published, which I’m real grateful for. A lot of that stuff very specifically came about because I’d be standing outside watching cows in a field. They just seemed like they knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing out there eating grass, and I was feeling like I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned just watching the world; realizing that a lot of the anxieties and hard things that we are navigating in this world aren’t as real as we think they are. Our society is not concrete. It doesn’t have to be this way. Watching animals and watching nature take its own course makes you realize that there are much bigger things happening, but they are also much simpler. I think this kind of music suits itself. There’s a lot of time to sit on the porch and be introspective about things.
AH: You have been able to travel all over the United States with the music that you have recorded. Are there any special places or experiences that stand out in your mind from being on the road?
CM: I’m real grateful that I have got to start touring across the whole county. It’s a special way to get to express both the landscapes and the people, and communities across the country. I think sometimes when we are stuck in our house, especially with the way the pandemic was when we were literally stuck in our house experiencing the world through our phones and TVs and computers – I think it can feel like there’s a lot of hatred and animosity in the world. I’m not saying that there isn’t. I think there is a lot of frustration that a lot of people are experiencing. But, I feel like by experiencing the people that I’ve met through music, it’s always a setting where people are joyful to be a part of because who would be sad if they walked in a room and someone was playing some fun banjo songs. It’s helped restore, or at least maintain, my faith in other folks because it always has been very special getting to share music with other people. Maybe I’m lucky, but I haven’t had too many negative experiences with crowds or folks at shows. In terms of going out to all these beautiful places. The path going from Asheville to Johnson City is the most gorgeous place. East Tennessee, Western North Carolina. I know you’re familiar. I haven’t been as many places as beautiful as that. I apologize to all the other beautiful places. Those were some really special days, both playing shows around Johnson City and finding some beautiful forests and campgrounds to hang out; do some stick and poke tattoos in the woods with my buddy Jay Skaggs. Everyone should go listen to Jay’s music. That was really special. But, also like every show – like the show when I came out your way in Winston-Salem and you were flatfooting in the parking lot – I was really glad you brought your plywood with you.
AH: I love the artwork that you have accompanying your releases? Who creates the artwork for your albums and releases?
CM: For my first two albums, Jenna, my partner, did the artwork. If you’ve ever seen my posters or now if you see other folks’ posters too, she does a lot of that artwork and it is amazing. I am very fortunate – that wasn’t part of what got us together, so I am very fortunate that Jenna is a beautiful artist. Especially on She did a whole photo and collage bit. It’s crazy. Everyone should go check it out. This last one is actually a block print that I made. For Three Years’ Time our rooster – we’re kind of chicken people, we raise chickens and we are raising more and more. We had four red hens, or we thought they were hens, and we named them Dolly, Emmylou, and June Carter, and one of them was a rooster, so June Carter became Johnny. Johnny was a very fierce rooster. If anyone is looking for a rooster, Rhode Island Red tend to be a little aggressive. He unfortunately lost a battle with a hawk. I made that block print from a nice photo of him, and Jenna was doing some block printing stuff in her room, and I was like I want to do that. I made the block print of Johnny which turned out pretty darn good. Then I was like, this has to be the album cover. Jenna helped me figure out how to make the words go the right way because you have to make the block prints backwards. This album also has eight pinnacles. I’ve opened my mind more and more to tarot, which I think can be a powerful tool for navigating difficult questions. I kept on drawing the Eight of Pentacles, a card about enjoying the process of your work. I kept drawing it and it felt personal to me, like a part of who I am and a part of our relationship that music and life is enjoying the process of what you are working at. That’s what Three Years’ Time is about. How if you want to make something happen that you’ve never done before, you have to enjoy the process and stick with it, and know that the process will get you to where you want to go.
AH: I want to talk about resiliency. You’ve openly discussed the harsh winters that you have faced and the rheumatism in your hands. Could you talk about the ice bath method that you have utilized to deal with your rheumatism?
CM: I admit that this winter has been so cold that our house has been in the 40s and low 50s so often that I have not needed to take ice baths all the time, but I have struggled with the cold. My hands swell up and as a musician it is not trivial. Losing my hands can feel like a very scary prospect. This winter I was more committed to figuring something out. Last winter, my hands were in terrible shape. The ice baths are something that Wim Hof talks about a lot. He’s got a very vital, youthful energy for an older guy. The idea about immersing yourself in ice water is exercising your cardiovascular system and, obviously, I don’t want to tell anyone what’s good for them or not good for them. I believe we just need to find things that work well for us, but that also works well for us. It made sense that this would help with my hands always being swollen. Sometimes when I couldn’t bend my fingers super good, ice baths have really helped. I think it’s something that if anyone wanted to try it, probably learn a little bit about it and have fun with it. I know we also eat a little different than most other folks. We cook all our food in lard and tallow. Maybe have an old timey way of living and eating that matches up with the old timey way that I play music.
AH: The new album is called Three Years’ Time. There is a song by that name on the album as well that you have released as a single. What kind of growth have you seen in the past three years, musical or otherwise, and what kind of growth do you hope to see in three years from now?
CM: Three years ago, I had not released Honey Baby I think that I was always either going to be a musician or I was going to self-sabotage whatever I was doing if I wasn’t going to be a musician. I probably would have done that with the work that I was doing. But, three years ago, I kind of, all of sudden, had it in my head that I was ready to start that journey of really putting myself out there as a musician. Sometimes I still feel like I had a little too much audacity to record that first one. I’m so grateful that I did. In the last three years, I have to remind myself that the pandemic only allowed performing to start happening again only a year and a half ago at most. I kind of went from a bedroom, open mic musician in three years to doing national tours and playing on stages with some of my all-time favorite musicians, which is absolutely wild. I got to open for one of my heroes which was crazy. I know that in the last three years I’ve got to grow – even going out on stage today, feeling confident and telling stories, and being engaging; enjoying being on stage and not just being a nervous wreck. It’s been really special. Three years ago, I was not someone who could just get up in front of people and share an intimate part of myself, and now that’s like something that I almost depend on for my well being. It’s one of my favorite things to do. In three years… A lot of my dreams focus on things we are doing at home, like being more self-sufficient, raising more chickens to eat, to sell, and to raise eggs. “Three Years’ Time” was kind of metaphorical, but the song is about if you want your garden to grow, it takes three years. Learning how to do that, so there’s a lot of things about learning how to step into the person that I want to be. I think we all have difficult healing journeys to go on. I know I am always wondering when healing journeys will stop. When will life be easy? I think I’ve learned it just probably won’t. It will full of difficult times. It’s about making sure you stay on the path and create joy, uplift yourself and the people around you. So, music wise, I just hope things keep going in the same direction. I hope people tune in to hear the music because I am going to keep playing it. It’s what I really love to do. I think that if people do get the opportunity to come out to a show, I’ve been told by a few folks that coming to my shows can be a pretty cathartic experience. I play a lot of traditional tunes at my shows, but I also share a lot about the things I’m navigating and a lot of my music is about navigating hard things. I hope to continue to do that. I hope folks come out and enjoy it too. I got a lot of goals for here at home. Maybe become a more consistent bread maker in the literal sense. I have a hard time staying on that. Learning to make my home a beautiful place. I’ve taken a lot of spiritual growth to understand how important that is.
Check out Charlie Marks’ music at https://www.charliemarksmusic.com
All photographs of Charlie Marks are by Sam Katz.