By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
She chops out thick chords and leans even harder into her vocals, her sense of song and husky voice holding the babble at bay, then slowly pushing it back. People turn and listen as she sings with forthright emotion, animated by a ferocious self-confidence.
That night, Houston's Mary Cutrufello put on a show that was full of skill, talent, aplomb, and something seen far too seldom in music these days--bravery.
For two lengthy sets, she pumped out songs like a weightlifter burning out bench-press reps. After just a few songs, you entirely forgot what an oddity the 27-year-old Cutrufello is. Clad in a flannel shirt, with her head topped off by a bush of springy black dreadlocks, she would seem to be a graduate of the Tracy Chapman songwriter's school. But the original music she's playing is definitely country--full of pathos, beer, regret, desire, and heartbroken delusion: the trysting cheaters of "Johnson Motel," the stubborn honor behind "A Promise I Made," or the simple desire behind "Need Somebody to Love."
If you're one of the few Dallasites who've seen Cutrufello's shows at the now-defunct Three Teardrops Tavern or more recently at Naomi's, the tiny bar at the east end of Deep Ellum that keeps a little bit of honky-tonk alive in a too-often slick entertainment district, you already know she's more surprising--and impressive--still. In a genre where women usually just stand around and sing or gently strum along on an acoustic guitar, she is the show, strutting the stage, snarling, moaning, and peeling out chattering, stuttering, wholeheartedly electric leads. Her playing is full of early Waylon-style chicken picking, steeped in the string-bending and double-stops of guitarists like Pete Anderson and Albert Lee.
Her style is honky-tonk power trio, encompassing all the classic country guitar tricks but obviously played by someone who'd worked from Jimi Hendrix back to Doc Watson. When not picking lead, her rhythms are big, fat chunks of chord that move as irresistibly as a safe falling down a flight of stairs.
Her stage presence matches her guitar's fire. Cutrufello moves about the stage in classic guitar-hero mode--caged panther division--accentuating high points of songs with a chop or a wave of her instrument, planting her feet wide as if facing a gale-force wind. It's a series of poses as stylized as Kabuki--and the bane of many a lesser talent--but Cutrufello makes it work through sheer enthusiasm.
When she goes uptempo, as in "Dallas" ("By the time you get to Dallas I'll be gone/There won't be no crawlin' back, there'll be no hangin' on") or "Thunderbird Town" ("You can't catch a girl in a V8 Ford")--she grins, roars, and growls like a cross between Koko Taylor and Wanda Jackson. When she turns morose or introspective ("Just the Whiskey Talkin'," the alter-ego address "Black Maria"), she frowns, scowls, and breaks her voice like a disappointed barfly stubbing out another broken-hearted cigarette. In between she yodels, whoops, and counts off songs with the infectious energy of a kid playing with his first train set on Christmas Day, and is likely to leap atop a pool table to make her point or wave her guitar like a magic wand.
"When Mary plays, it's a true celebration--a celebration of the love affair between her and her music," says Merel Bregante, a longtime music industry pro who--before settling down in Austin as a production engineer--was with Loggins and Messina for the entire arc of their career and played with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for several years. Bregante engineered Cutrufello's latest album, the brilliant live-to-disc who to love and when to leave.
It's a love that encompasses both facility and depth. While a country sense of clever is a beautiful thing--just ask Junior Brown--Cutrufello can also dig deep into the emotional ruminations that have traditionally nurtured singer-songwriters, a territory Brown has pretty much avoided. That she can build a great song on simple wordplay is apparent from numbers like "All the Millers in Milwaukee," and "You'll be Over Her (Before I'm Over You)," but she can also write songs like "Black Maria," a soundtrack for that long, dark tea-time of the soul when one aspect of your character meets its opposite. "Black Maria comes to call/Whenever I get feelin' lonely," Cutrufello writes, telling the shadow that "...I'll let you look me in the eye/And I'll look back at you/Deep inside my mind."
Cutrufello embodies more opposites than might seem possible. Her deep, muscular voice is almost gender-neutral; her walloping stage style--combined with the fact that in an industry where most women go for tight clothes designed to show the goods or schoolmarm froufrou, she prefers jeans-and-T-shirt functionality--has led some to speculate about her sexuality. When you find out that she's Yale-educated and was raised in the C&W wasteland of Connecticut, it seems amazing that she's even here at all--at least until she starts to play and sing.