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Rebel from the North

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

Without a doubt, Mary Cutrufello makes for an unlikely cowgirl. On this warm December day, the singer/songwriter/guitarist models the dressed-down Johnny Cash look, foregoing any flashier hints to her occupation for a simple black T-shirt and jeans and a modest pair of dark boots. Without the spiffy white Stetson she occasionally wears on-stage and for the cameras, her mop of hair is left free to fall where it may. In a country music industry where homogenized looks, empty craftsmanship and simulated small-town humbleness figure heavily in the equation for success, Cutrufello, an assertive Yale University graduate from Connecticut, of all places, offers none of the above.

"I listen to the same thing everybody else does," says Cutrufello, picking over a late lunch at a Galleria-area restaurant. "It just filters through me and comes out differently."

As if her other differences aren't enough, Cutrufello has to weather an additional obstacle: she's a female of color. While women don't have much trouble making it in Nashville, it seems that most who do these days are impeccably molded to fit a photogenic TNN stereotype. And while we're on the subject, when was the last time you saw a black (half black, in Cutrufello's case) female on the country charts?

You could argue that Cutrufello isn't really country -- or at least she isn't the industry's watered-down definition of the term. Instead, she's what is known around these parts as "true country," a fresh acknowledgment of C&W's roots heard little -- if at all -- on KIKK and other radio stations with a supposed allegiance to the form. In Houston, the Hollisters and Jesse Dayton are doing it, and in her own feisty way, so is Cutrufello. It's cut-to-the-chase honky-tonk; it's Cold War-era cross-pollination à la Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings; it's paint-peeling rave-ups courtesy of Buck Owens; and perhaps most important, it's downright pleasing to the ears and the feet.

Around the time of Cutrufello's first -- and only -- release, a demo-quality eight-song tape recorded in 1992 at Austin's Hit Shack, a few music writers around the state hinted at a burgeoning "black kicker culture" led by a promising core of African-American talent. If that was ever the case, you could've fooled Cutrufello. "There isn't any, as far as I'm concerned," she says, referring in particular to a 1993 Texas Monthly article that focused on Cutrufello and Houston performers Larry Callies and Al White. "I never really heard of any of those guys until I read that story. As far as I know, Callies is mostly just playing covers of other people's stuff."

The 25-year-old Cutrufello, on the other hand, has been playing her own stuff since she was nine. The adopted daughter of two high school teachers, Cutrufello grew up in the New York City suburb of Fairfield, Connecticut, your typical quiet bedroom community where weekdays revolved around the 30-mile commute to Manhattan and weekends around yard work. A "band geek" at a high school where being in the band was actually cool, she studied jazz guitar and learned how to read and compose music. Cutrufello remembers writing a few horn arrangements around that time, as well as an embarrassing attempt at a rock opera that she'd rather not talk about. At the time, she admits, country music occupied not even the tiniest cranny of her consciousness; for her, like for most full-blooded '80s teenagers within earshot of New York, Springsteen was king. "My big touchstone was the E Street Band," Cutrufello says. "That's the ultimate live-band experience as far as I'm concerned. The songs were intense. They rocked, but they were also lyrically intense."

A drive through the western states with her parents and younger sister taken during a vacation between high school and college whetted Cutrufello's appetite for travel. "It was the first time I'd been west of Hershey, Pennsylvania," she says. "It was like a religious experience. To this day, that big sky just totally does it for me."

The trip -- which didn't include Texas -- was enough to influence Cutrufello's choice of degree programs at Yale. Majoring in American Studies, Cutrufello continued to perform while at school, playing guitar and singing with bands in New Haven, Connecticut. The best-known of those groups was Cement Shoes, a blues-rock party band with a penchant for jamming that pleased the town's Deadheads. With a solid mix of covers and Cutrufello originals, Cement Shoes held its own against an insurgence of local funk-punk bands spawned by the success of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "The reason that we got to be such a big band at Yale was because we were the only ones who could play a full four-hour night," recalls Cutrufello. "We were almost all original, except for the covers everyone demanded us to play. It was a whole different body of work, mostly written by me."

Then band leader Cutrufello threw her bandmates a curve. She had gotten her hands on a copy of Dwight Yoakam's Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room and couldn't put it down. She wanted to introduce a few C&W classics into Cement Shoes' set list; the rest of the band thought she was nuts. It was the end of the road for Cement Shoes and the beginning of Cutrufello's obsession with country music.

"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."

Cutrufello understands that her story is far from typical. She didn't languish in some hayseed town in Tennessee or Oklahoma as a kid; her daddy wasn't a truck driver; and she didn't get her start lip-synching to Tammy Wynette standards at the county fair. "I mean, look at Dale Watson, he's a perfect example: his dad was a country musician, he grew up in Pasadena, Texas; he just lives and breathes the music," Cutrufello admits. "It's what he is in a way that I'll never be able to match."

To her credit, though, Cutrufello has done a reasonable job of proving it's the feel -- not the history -- that matters.

"Some people might find it presumptuous that I would say that after five years, I've got the vibe of country music down," she says. "Mine is a different take on it -- a more academic take. It's the way my head works. I don't think that invalidates what I do at all."

Mary Cutrufello performs at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, December 14, at Blanco's, 3406 West Alabama. No cover. For info, call 439-0072. Cutrufello also performs at 10:30 p.m. Friday, December 15, at the Edge, 2301 West Alabama. Tickets are $4. For info, call 524-4198.

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