The mechanics of change... "How'd you notice that? You're the first person that's said anything."
Mary Cutrufello knows she's been found out, and she reacts with a curious mix of embarrassment and pride. She averts her eyes, grins and giggles like a kid who's just been fingered in a scheme to commandeer the world's largest cookie jar. And yet, as much as they are undeniable, the similarities between her "Sad, Sad World" and heartland stadium icon John Mellencamp's "Lonely Old Night" speak to the Houston-based singer/songwriter/guitarist's recent evolution. It's a transformation that's seen her go from awkward honky-tonk wannabe to staunch roots-rocker, one that's culminated in When the Night Is Through, her Mercury Records debut, which is due out Tuesday.
"The plan is to be very gone, and I like that," says Cutrufello, who has returned briefly to her Montrose neighborhood before what promises to be an exhausting period of travel to support her new release. "I'm looking forward to selling the record on the road."
While her studio band was made up of top-dollar hired guns -- ex-Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Bob Glaub and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee -- Cutrufello will retain her longtime Austin-based rhythm section for her tour. Somehow, she was also able to roust E Street Band alum Danny Frederici out of semi-retirement to play keyboards. Maybe it was the prospect of a Tonight Show gig (scheduled for the end of August) that sealed it. "I sent him a tape, and he liked it," Cutrufello says of snagging Frederici, as if it were as simple as making a few phone calls. And for the most part, it was.
When the Night Is Through is as much a return to form as it is a fresh direction for Cutrufello. "No matter what I've ever done, there's always been a rock underpinning," she says. "That's where I'm from."
Before moving to Texas in the early 1990s, Cutrufello was working the college bar-and-beer-bash circuit in New Haven, Connecticut, with a bluesy rock outfit called Cement Shoes while earning her degree in American Studies at Yale University. Her true point of reference was -- and always will be -- the gritty, blue-collar poetics that made a young Bruce Springsteen the Dylan of his day. The adopted daughter of a pair of schoolteachers, Cutrufello grew up in a Connecticut suburb of New York City, which is about as distanced from the trappings of the C&W ethos as a girl can get.
But at some point during her time as a Yalie, Cutrufello crossed paths with Dwight Yoakam's Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room. She was intrigued, to say the least. Things pretty much snowballed from there, and come 1995, she was perfectly at home in a white Stetson, churning out an atypical selection of honky-tonk covers and self-penned weepers and rock-leaning anthems, all of it delivered in an affected snarl that suggests a gravelly, unrefined cross between Melissa Etheridge and Houston's own Carolyn Wonderland. Calling her backup band the Havoline Supremes, Cutrufello was more than happy to profess her newfound love for the legendary likes of Buck Owens and Waylon Jennings.
These days, the Stetson is in storage -- permanently, it would seem. And while Cutrufello would never dismiss the importance of her Texas-immersion phase, she does confess that it wasn't always easy to find the real Mary beneath all the twang. "I came down here and had a good time and learned a ton," she says. "But three years ago, I realized that I had learned what I set out to learn. It was time to go back home."
It's kind of ironic, then, that for all the grief she's taken over the years for her privileged upbringing, northern blood and conspicuous efforts to fit the true-country mold, Cutrufello may wind up absorbing even more flack for the unabashed bar-rock feel of When the Night Is Through. Produced by Thom Panunzio, who worked as an engineer on a few early Springsteen albums, the 12-track effort has a raw, live-to-tape feel that isn't always flattering. Even worse, Panunzio's no-frills mix is distracting when it comes to Cutrufello's vocals, which are often up-front to the point of being obtrusive.
Regardless, the album represents an admirable confluence of styles and moods. Bookended by the rollicking, soak-it-up elation of "Sunny Day" and the sobering, autobiographical ballad/epic "Goodnight Dark Angel," Night careens from Stonesy boogie ("Sweet Promise") to introspective, folk-and-soul-tinged narratives ("Sister Cecil," the brass-backed "Tired and Thirty") to rugged, road-tested gems like "Highway 59 (Let It Rain)," with its subtle blue-eyed-soul aftertaste (think Abandoned Luncheonette-era Hall & Oates with a thicker spine).
Sure, a lot about the album is derivative, and Cutrufello could stand to sharpen her lyrical skills (a lazy reliance on earthly elements -- sun, sky, precipitation and the like -- is particularly troublesome). But judging from the much-publicized six-album deal that was laid in her lap, Mercury has Cutrufello figured for a work-in-progress. "[Mercury] seemed to get not only where I am but where I'm going," she says of the label, with which she signed last September.
If that's really the case, then When the Night Is Through should serve as a worthy starting point. "It's sort of like a homecoming," says Cutrufello of the album.
And she might as well soak it up, because, chances are, any evidence of home is going to be hard to come by for quite some time.
-- Hobart Rowland
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