Rebel from the North

Mary Cutrufello may not fit the country mold, but she knows the country sound

"When I first got that Dwight record, I tried to figure out what [guitarist Pete Anderson] was doing," she says. "He was using the pick and two fingers; it sounded like two guitars. It never crossed my mind that you could do that. I couldn't really unlock the secrets of it. I knew all the guitarists around town, and none of them knew anything about what I was trying to do."

So Cutrufello decided to find more supportive surroundings. She packed up everything she owned in a truck and drove to Austin. "I've always been a willful child," says Cutrufello, explaining why her family didn't waste their time trying to discourage her from heading west. "I don't think they understood. If I was going to New York to learn how to score Broadway musicals, that they'd understand."

Cutrufello confesses that she knew nothing about Texas at the time. Her only connection in Austin was a friend of a friend of her parents, who put her up for a few days when she first arrived. But Cutrufello was determined to get her act together quickly, finding a band, which she dubbed the Havoline Supremes, and writing country songs like crazy -- your basic heartbreaking, up-and-leave-'em sentiments, but with a fighter's edge and an urban swagger.

"Thematically, I take my lyrics from country; I write about dysfunctional relationships," Cutrufello says. "As far as the music, it's right down the middle [between rock and country], and my performances lean more toward rock and roll."

At first, Austin welcomed Cutrufello with open arms. But as she began having increased success in Dallas and Houston, her new home became less friendly. "Once they realized that I meant business," Cutrufello says, "they were less enthusiastic."

A little more than a year ago, Cutrufello pulled up stakes and moved to Houston. "Parts of it remind me of home," she says. "And I like the weather, because it sucks most of the time. There's not a lot of impetus to go out on the lawn and play Frisbee or whatever, so it's more conducive to doing work. That's the problem with Austin: the weather's just too nice there."

For the most part, Cutrufello has survived by not believing her own hype. The articles that popped up rather steadily a few years back proclaiming Cutrufello the next big thing and a player of "guitar-hero status" would have you believe she was on the verge of something substantial. The thin crowd that showed up for a Cutrufello show at Blanco's a few months back would have you believe otherwise. "I just don't pay attention on nights like that," Cutrufello says.

Judging from the intensity she brought to Blanco's small stage, Cutrufello was playing her heart out for someone that muggy September night. With her Telecaster slung low at the hips and a voice resembling a raspy, chain-smoking Tanya Tucker, Cutrufello, backed by the solid grooves of bassist Chris Johnson and drummer Steve Wood (late of the Rounders), burned clear through "Need Somebody to Love" and other gritty originals and then dusted off and refueled some chestnuts from the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. The lucky few at Blanco's that evening looked on in awe. For all intents and purposes, Cutrufello could have been playing to the bartender; it would not have mattered. The show had a momentous, freshly cracked air about it, and an urgency that, if properly unleashed, would have stopped traffic in an instant on nearby Buffalo Speedway.

All of this belies the fact that Cutrufello, while playing at this level night after night, hasn't managed to break beyond the Texas state line. She'll tell you it's all part of the plan. Articulate and well-read, with a shrewd business sense, Cutrufello -- while hesitant to sound too much like "country star-slash-business major Garth Brooks" -- knows her financial limits. She's confident that her significant surplus of talent will get her where she wants to go without making concessions and without enduring exhausting, low-budget regional tours. So far, Cutrufello hasn't ventured any farther from home than Denton, and she plans on keeping it that way until the right recording deal ("right" as in "major label") comes along. "The way I look at it, I could have been signed to any indie. But I can do more than that -- more money," she laughs. "At the same time, I'm more country and less country than what they're doing in Nashville. So I'm not looking there. It's ironic that I'm doing country music, and what's going on in Nashville would not work for me. But that's all it is: ironic. It is what it is."

Mary Cutrufello Inc. (so to speak) is essentially the artist herself and manager Holly Gleason, a music writer who is based, interestingly enough, in Nashville and handles the artist's national buzz. Cutrufello does all Texas booking and publicity herself, and she likes it that way. For now, it's time just to sit back and let the labels come knocking.

"I've had two offers so far, [but] it's [a matter of] getting her the right deal with the right people," says Gleason. "A lot of what's going on in Nashville right now has got this Vaseline-y coating. I don't know anybody who writes as insightfully and to the bone as Mary does."

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