By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
who to love and when to leave
By now the more obvious aspects of Mary Cutrufello have been reduced to filler fodder, but the contrasts inherent in an African-American female from the East Coast with a Yale education attempting to play hardcore honky-tonk still bear repeating for the uninitiated, and the fact that she does such a damn good job of it keeps the easy hook from dying. With who to love and when to leave--quite simply one of the sharpest, most essential country albums of the last decade--Cutrufello gives the cliche yet another lease on life.
The sound is stripped down to the point of being elemental: Cutrufello's voice and raucous lead guitar playing (no overdubs on either) backed up by upright bass and drums. This simple arrangement allows the listener to focus on her lovingly deft manipulation of genre standards: rambunctious guitar that chugs scratchily along in rhythm mode and hiccups, squawks, and bounces when turned loose for lead turns, and the unusually intelligent wordplay and imagery of her songwriting. There are lovin' songs, leavin' songs, and doin'-somebody-wrong songs, but they're all delivered with a clever subtlety that Nashville either can't or won't come up with. On "I Didn't Even Get to Lose You," Cutrufello sings of the pain of the Other Woman, but one who was aced out of the prize by another, sharper Jezebel.
Dogged honor--keeping to a personal code regardless of consequence--has always been an underlying tenet of country music, and Cutrufello recognizes this with two promise songs: one in which she resists temptation ("A Promise I Made"), and the other in which she acknowledges its rewards ("Sweet Promise of Love"). Like the greatest songwriters, she maps out a honky-tonk continent, a world of no-tell motels ("Johnson Motel"), fallen hearts ("Man That He's Become," "Legends of the Horseshoe Lounge"), and finally redemption ("Love's to Blame," co-written with Steve Earle, wherein the narrator finds her rambling fires banked at last by love, a process she doesn't understand but receives gratefully).
Who to love is "live" enough--quick discussions and whoops before kicking off a song--to put you right there in front of Mary and her combo with a cold can of Falstaff in your hand, and there's a local angle to this self-produced gem as well, with a picture of Cutrufello performing at Naomi's--the honky-tonk that keeps a little bit of country in Deep Ellum--and a special thank-you to the bar's owners and patrons. Who to love and when to leave should be standard issue for anyone who loves country music (and everybody in Nashville, too).