On a cold winter night, Poor David's Pub has undergone a transformation. Usually a listener's bar, this Friday it's the kind of place where people go to socialize, and the music is incidental--loud and shot through with the ebullience of alcohol. The woman alone on stage pays it no mind, her face intent as she bends over a cream-colored Telecaster that stands out against her black jeans and red plaid shirt.
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.
After that, it only seems natural that the last year has seen an entire industry falling over itself in a headlong rush to pin a medal on Mary. Last summer, she played guitar for Jimmie Dale Gilmore--a particularly credible plum--on his Braver Newer World tour. Seeing her onstage in Dallas at Deep Ellum Live in August in her Hendrix-style hussar's jacket, dreadlocks held up with a bandanna across her forehead, strutting through Gilmore's songs with apparent ease, was to watch every bit of the combination of rock imagery, entertainment value, and street cred that Bruce Springsteen had so desperately sought after dismissing the E Street Band--a quest in which he failed mightily.
It makes her a press agents' dream, while her command of bare-knuckle, high-octane honky-tonk has earned her accolades from such oughta-knows as Johnny Bush and Jesse Taylor. She's also labored long and hard on the Texas club circuit, generating good press that--until lately--hasn't really translated into anything beyond a great local rep.
Now this most unlikely of honky-tonkers--an African-American, a woman who can discuss music like a professor, play guitar like the devil, and sing about lust, loss, and love like a man--is poised at the edge of the big time, and it's not a question of if she leaps; it's a matter of when.
Little about Cutrufello has ever been conventional. She grew up in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she and her little sister Cecil were raised by Mildred Cutrufello, the state's first adoptive single mom and a teacher. A few years before, Mildred--contemplating the high expense of renting an apartment--had gone in on the purchase of a house with Mary Kehoe, a fellow teacher, and Mary grew up in a house headed by two women.
"It wasn't that big a deal," Mary--who refers to both women as her parents--says of the unconventional setup. "I mean, my Mom's straight, my aunt's straight, I'm straight. Did I miss the traditional 'strong male' presence in the house? I don't know; I never had it to miss. It all seemed very normal to me." It was a placid existence for the family, who lived about 50 miles from Manhattan. They were well-off, but in a subdued way. "It was very bland," Mary says. "You could leave your doors unlocked, and nothing ever really happened." She started on the guitar at age nine; later, she checked out records from the local public library. Her first love was musical theater and Stephen Sondheim.
At Yale she majored in American Studies, specializing in 20th-century transportation history (when discussing Fairfield over a plate of barbecue, she identifies it as being "right off the New Haven line, a four-track electrified commuter railway built about 100 years ago"). She also played guitar and sang in a local act that she describes as "our version of the Rolling Stones, with lots of jumping around...and never in tune." She laughs, the deep laugh of a sensualist, or at least a person who enjoys laughing.
As Cutrufello entered adulthood, she underwent two crystallizing experiences: a driving trip with her parents through the American West, and Dwight Yoakam's Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room. The trip occurred in 1987, right after high school. "With the exception of a ski trip, I'd never been west of Hershey, Pennsylvania," she says. "The further west we got, the more and more blown away I was by...just the space. Flat has always represented liberation to me, because where I grew up there were hills everywhere; that big, open, short-grass country--where you just crest a hill and the land just rolls away from you forever--was so intense.
"It was this trans-Mississippi, continental experience," she adds. "I was just overwhelmed. I felt like I'd come back to my home planet. We were at Mount Rushmore for the Fourth of July, and it was the 50th anniversary of the completion of Lincoln's face. They had this giant flag they pulled off of Lincoln--he's huge--and the Blue Angels flew over. Later there were fireworks, and the whole thing was just really great."
Although at Yale her studies were rife with musical touchstones--railroads, highways, cars--Cutrufello confesses that she "never really planned to do anything with music. I was focused on academia. What really turned me on was studying about railroads and highways. I was still writing songs, but songs like 'The Long Red Line,' which was about I-40 taking over Route 66."
Then came Buenos Noches. "Pete Anderson [Yoakam's guitar player and producer] was doing the most incredible things I'd ever heard," she recalls. Although she'd first been attracted to country when she'd watched Dukes of Hazzard and Hee Haw as a kid, there wasn't anybody around even to explain to her who Waylon Jennings was (he did the Dukes theme music) or what he represented; Yoakam and Anderson were her entree. "Around 1990, I started looking at second-hand record stores and cut-out bins, garage sales and stuff, and I started reading the backs of albums, noticing names," she says. "But I still didn't have anybody to put any of it in context for me."
The pull steadily grew. "I was really bored with rock when country came around. It was right before Nevermind, and Guns 'N Roses were the baddest thing on the radio," she says with a shake of her head. "Country just seemed so cool compared to that.
"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," she confesses. "I was trained as a cultural historian, and gradually I came to look at [exploring] country music like a self-directed grad school, where I'd just see what I could learn." In 1991 she packed up her guitar and used records and relocated to Austin stone cold. "I felt brazenly unqualified to even be there," she says. "I went down to the Broken Spoke and saw Chris Wall there, and it was so overwhelming that I had to leave--you could feel the power of the tradition. I was like, 'I am so not ready for this!' I didn't come back for a couple weeks."
Gradually, Cutrufello began studying. "I bought used CDs, talked to players, watched them play, and practiced," she says. In Austin, she learned from masters such as Wall, Alvin Crow, Dale Watson, and the band Chapparal, and it was then that she ran into Bregante, who'd just moved to Austin and was drumming for Wall. "We'd [Bregante and his wife Sarah] heard of Mary--she'd been very highly recommended by John Inmon [former lead guitarist with the original Lost Gonzo Band], and that's nothing to take lightly," Bregante recalls. "We went to see her and just flipped out. Later, I'd see her when she sat in with Chris. Gradually, we got to know each other, and when she found out I had a digital home studio, we started recording. It was a lot of fun."
Her timing was unfortunate. Austin was already filled to the scuppers with earnest kids with guitars out to blend country and rootsy rock; also, to a certain extent, her attitude--focused, goal-oriented, and geared to achievement--went against Austin's fabled mellow vibe. Respect eluded her. "She just got hammered," Bregante says of her reception.
"Let me see," Cutrufello says slowly when asked about Austin. "I want to choose my words carefully, 'cause I really love Austin; I go there all the time. It's a very laid-back place, it's just that I think it's a bit too laid-back for me."
Family who lived inside the loop in a nice older neighborhood in Houston had a standing offer of a garage apartment, and in 1994--no longer willing to overlook that she was playing many more gigs in Houston than Austin--Mary took them up on it.
It's hard to see what took her so long. The desk in her upstairs pad--beneath a large calendar featuring two big diesel locomotives, with a laptop computer on it and a hardback copy of 6,000 Miles of Fence, a book about the famed XIT Ranch, nearby--overlooks a well-kept backyard full of plants, the resigned cooing of doves, and cats striding imperiously through the lush grass.
Since '93, Cutrufello had been generating a buzz outside of the Live Music Capital of the Known Universe, and the move interrupted nothing. She would play to two the same way that she would for 72--fiercely--and there was something about her even then that let you know it would be the same for 2,000. That she would be playing to 2,000 seemed a forgone conclusion.
Her voice was the one area for which reports weren't unanimously raving; sometimes she could manipulate it in ways that seemed extreme, but even then her songwriting was sharp and often allowed the indulgence. "My voice is terribly mannered," she admits with a laugh, throwing her head back. "You're just used to it." She laughs again and then pauses for a moment. "You've got to understand that when I was growing up, I just idolized musical theater." She points over her shoulder to the door of her apartment. "I've got like 200 records of that kind of stuff up there. I realize that I don't sing like anybody else. I don't work at singing a whole lot, so what you're getting is my natural ability."
In 1993 she personally released Mary Cutrufello and the Havoline Supremes, an eight-song cassette that started out as a demo. The Havoline Supremes represent the one time Cutrufello bothered to name her backing musicians, a fact that may have something to do with them quitting the day after the recording sessions wrapped. Cutrufello has since been through a number of sidemen, although her current bassist, Roland Denney, has been with her for about a year. All original, Havoline was a hidden gem that could keep you buying tapes from bands at gigs for the next decade, a blast of pure swingin'-door hardcore, flawlessly executed. It's tribute to Cutrufello's presence that the album's way-country steel and fiddle parts almost seem to get in the way.
Last September she released who to love and hit another bull's-eye. Stripped down and truer to her three-piece sound, the album found Cutrufello growing as a songwriter, paying less tribute as she explored country's almost Newtonian world of action and reaction on songs like "Johnson Motel," "The Man That He's Become," and "A Promise I Made."
"I'm really fascinated by the moral crises of country music," she says. "Country really presupposes a moral worldview where if you run around on your wife, it's gonna mess with your head. It'll resonate. Maybe you'll drink too much, maybe you'll leave, but you're gonna do something. Each person has compelling reasons, and there's obviously a lot of stress, but it's nothing anyone can get out of, and that's the sort of complexity and tension that I'd find over and over in country and not in rock. I like to let that flower. As a writer, it can help you tap into really intense emotional stuff."
Around the same time came the gig with Gilmore. "I think he wanted to start over completely from scratch with the band, because that was in keeping with the whole point of the album," Cutrufello explains. "Our managers know each other, and so one day I went over to his house; he had a rough mix of the new album and we listened to it. What really clinched it was that there was a lot of baritone guitar on the album, and I've got one that I never get to play, because it's too much hassle."
Cutrufello shone on the tour, getting rave reviews wherever she went; even the The New York Times responded warmly. When she left the band, there was idle speculation that perhaps she had shone a little too brightly, but Cutrufello says the real reasons were more pragmatic. "We ran out of money," she says. "I've always loved playing guitar for other people, but when you're a frontman you just don't get many sideman calls. I took care not to get in the way, and I toned it down as much as I could, but I think I was hired to be me.
"It was big fun," she adds. "Jimmie's a great guy, sweet and smart. You always had the sense with him that he was just discovering something, and that's a neat energy to have around. He let me sing a song, and we duetted on [Townes Van Zandt's] "White Freightliner Blues," but it wasn't like it was something I insisted on, that I get "my moment."
The six-month gig was a major educational experience to boot. "I got to do real promoting-a-record-for-a-major-label kind of stuff for the first time, without it being me, so when I had to I could just sit back and watch. I think I know how to pick a good road manager now." It may end up being an invaluable briefing; in the last couple of months, things have begun to heat up for Cutrufello. A song on who to love, "Love's to Blame," was co-written with Steve Earle, and she just put on a crowd-pleasing show at a Nashville music showcase last month, taped an episode of Austin City Limits, and more recently tore up the big stage at the Austin Music Hall for South by Southwest. She's currently being courted by more than a half-dozen major labels, the reward for two steady years of work with her manager, Nashville's Holly Gleason.
It's a jump Cutrufello is ready to make, and she's already changing stylistically. You can see it in her stage attire: In the early '90s she went for stage-y kicker finery--sequins, pearl buttons, even a big ol' cowboy hat--but she now appears more often than not in a black T-shirt and jeans. If Havoline Supremes represented her leaving her roots-rock past behind and becoming what she called "an Alvin Crow wannabe," and who to love was her mastery of the country form, then her Saturday-night show at SXSW was a glimpse of things to come. On what was perhaps the biggest stage she'd ever played on her own--certainly much bigger than any most of her fans had ever seen her on--Cutrufello got a big, fat sound that she rode like a tractor, and her stage persona expanded to match as she worked to fill a heroic space like old Bono, or even the Boss himself.
That, of course, is no accident for a girl who grew up a train ride away from Springsteen's home turf. "When I was growing up, Born to Run was the shit," says Cutrufello, who lists The River and Darkness on the Edge of Town as two Springsteen faves. "I've been listening to side one of The River, especially 'The Ties That Bind'--that's just such a great song, I'm even thinking about doing it. It seems to run counter to what I write about, but the bridge--where he sings "I'd rather have the hurt inside/Than know the emptiness your heart must hide"--that ties it in. Lyrically and musically, it sounds a lot like what I'm writing now."
Her South by Southwest show revealed a growing fondness for big moments, too--the musical equivalent of the giant flag and swooping jets over Mount Rushmore. "Darkness on the Edge of Town is such a great guitar album--the lead break in 'Candy's Room' is just so raw and intense that I just have to stand still when it comes on," she says. "In 1988 I saw Bruce in Philadelphia when he was on that Human Rights Now! tour, and I saw him make a connection with 100,000 people who were completely worn out, and he just turned that place into a zoo. They did 'Rosalita,' and the energy was just so intense, it was palpable. My faith in rock 'n' roll hadn't been shaken then--it certainly has since--but that show is what keeps me thinking it can work with huge numbers of people."
There's a potential for danger, though; even Springsteen eventually collapsed under the weight of his own heroic rep. And down in Austin, Cutrufello revealed a Boss-like tendency toward overstatement. On small stages--say, the corner of her beloved Naomi's, where she consistently turns in blazing shows--she's confined, and having to concentrate her energy gives a sense of almost incandescent urgency. On the large stage at the Music Hall, sometimes she seemed to be just jumping around. The coolest guitar move in the universe won't last through 2,000 exposures.
But she's definitely aiming high--at more than being just some exotic kicker guitar chick or a Springsteen clone. "What I want to do is take country music's moral intensity, the lyric complexity--that and the guitar playing--and mix it with rock 'n' roll. If there's not a place for it, maybe we can make one," she says, warming to the subject. "I think people have a need to connect and a need for narrative--an oral tradition that makes a certain kind of sense."
She trusts her longtime fans, like the crowd at Naomi's. "The people there are great, and I don't think they're that doctrinaire about their country. I've done my new stuff, and they're right there up with it. When we did songs like 'The Man That He's Become' or 'Johnson Motel,' like we did a few weeks ago in Nashville, what you end up with is basically a rock band playing these really intense songs that sound like the person who wrote them listens to a lot of country, and that's exactly where I want to be now." She pauses. "I probably shouldn't over-intellectualize things," she says, laughing, "although that is my forte."
All the new attention can be disorienting. "Sometimes I'm all but overwhelmed by it," she confesses. "It's really amazing--people are jumping up and down wanting to talk to me, take me to dinner, and it's freaking me out."
Even though it seems that stars and even artists are getting younger and younger, that provides little relief for the feelings of isolation and disorientation at the center of the hype. "Merel [Bregante] is the closest person that I can talk to who's been through something like this, with Loggins and Messina. He's telling me about the nature of the moment and what this requires. All I want out of this--whatever it turns into in the next few weeks--is the opportunity to see just how big a connection I can make. I mean, why not? It feels good to make a small connection, and every larger connection I've made has felt better, so it follows that I should try to make the biggest connection I can and see how cool that would be."
Bregante is glad to be of service. "From the moment I saw her, I knew she was going to be a star," he says. "It's like Steve Popavich [record company honcho who was with CBS and later president of Polygram] once told me--'If you bring me the best thing I've ever heard, I'll sign it right away; if you bring me the worst thing I've ever heard, I'll sign that right away; the only thing I'm not interested in is what's in the middle.' Mary's like that, she doesn't dwell in the gray."
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Bregante has been the source of many little tips about life in the biz. "Just before she went on the road with Jimmie Dale, she called me and asked if I had any advice. I told her to get on the bus first and grab the lower left rear bunk. The torque of the engine seems to hold you in--you fall out of bed a lot less often--and once you get used to the road noise, it'll drown out any other sound like snoring. The fact that you're down low minimizes sway, and you'll be a lot more comfortable. She called me when she got to New York, and was like 'You're right!'"
There's more to making a living at music than knowing what bunk to pick, though, and the road can be a place where your Black Marias aren't occasional visitors but steady companions. "I see for Mary an incredibly rewarding and difficult time," Bregante says. "When she walks away from that first year, she's gonna be really tired. I hope the rigors of the road don't wear her down, because she's quite sensitive, and I don't think she knows how unique she really is."
"I'm just trying to stay focused and have the faith that I've had all along," Cutrufello says. "That if you do your thing, the only way you can fuck it up is to let it fuck you up. Right now I'm just having a great time with it, and I'm damn happy to be here. It's a beautiful thing, it's fun, and sometimes I just find myself bursting into spontaneous laughter."
Then, not surprisingly, she laughs.