The Art of Getting Broken
She was an American girl...
She says it's all about making the connection, and that's easy enough to imagine, even if this weren't a rock and roll story, even if rock and roll stories weren't always about connecting, about someone making music that stomps off a stage and into some fan's gut and somehow changes everything. Even without that, it's easy enough to imagine Mary Cutrufello -- a 13-year-old girl, light-skinned for a black kid, living in Connecticut with adoptive parents and a more popular younger sister -- with a powerful need to feel connected to something.
It's not unusual that she connected with Bruce Springsteen, either, driving through the airwaves on WNEW out of New York City, changing everything. Nor was she the first kid to mime a Tom Petty lick on a tennis racket and dream of feeling what it must feel like to be on the other side of those speakers, and she will not, presumably, be the last. That's what rock stars are for. She connected. She became a fan.
And she says it's about moving people, which is not about being a fan. It's the next step up. It's when you drop the Wilson and buy a cheap Telecaster copy and learn how to punch other people in the gut. Same connection, only better.
"The feeling that you get when you have a screaming PA, with major subs below the stage and you roll into that first song and people's heads snap around. And then by the time you're halfway through the set, people have let their beer get warm .I can do that with a rock band, and that's the only way I can do that."
This is what rock stars are for, and though it hasn't always suited her to package herself as such, or to say so outright -- what with the very concept of rock stardom falling in and out of contemporary favor -- Mary Cutrufello grew up wanting to be a rock star. She didn't want to mimic rock stars, or ironize them, or run around town acting like one. She wanted to be one. She wanted to make the music that makes the connection that makes the fan possible.
She didn't too much lust after the privileges and excess of the lifestyle, except for one thing. She wanted big audiences, and big stages upon which she would climb and do what rock stars do. There was no point in thinking small. There is nothing small about Springsteen, or Mellencamp, or Petty.
"The kind of music that I make, there's nothing niche or alternative or off-the-beaten-path about it, so why not try to move as many people as you can." It is not a question.
The interesting thing is, Mary Cutrufello got just about as close to being a bona fide no-bullshit stadium-moving rock star as talent, determination, smarts, a good angle and the modern recording industry can get you, without actually getting you there. She's like those near-death-experiencers that show up every sweeps week, floating in coma or cardiac arrest toward a bright light at the end of a tunnel that tells them they're dying, tells them everything is changing, and just before the chute loses form to encompassing bliss, a trapdoor swings open, for no apparent reason at all, and sends them hurtling back into some starched hospital bed, confused, blinking, not dead yet.
Almost dead. Almost a rock star. It's almost a joke. Knock knock, who's there, rock star, rock star who?
Mary Cutrufello ran into the light. And then -- ha ha -- the power went out.
Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong...
Texas never quite Xgot Mary Cutrufello, because Texas never had the perspective, could never see the long view (could never even imagine a long view that extended beyond its self-congratulatory borders). And true, Texas was somewhat misled. Cutrufello arrived here in 1991, pit-stopping in Austin before settling in Houston, fresh out of the American Studies department at Yale, a dreadlocked black woman building a mythology on pickup trucks and honky-tonks and George Jones. She sold herself as country when country -- at least the insurgent/No Depression variety -- was cool, and it didn't hurt that she was good at it.
What Texas never realized is that Mary Cutrufello being good at country music was just Mary Cutrufello being a good student. Texas didn't know about growing up in a house where a mother's Stephen Sondheim musicals were the rule and classic heartland radio rock was a teenager's passion.
"I moved down here with the express purpose of learning about Texas music and country music, and I moved down here because I didn't come from a place where that was ever heard, or even given much respect. And I threw myself into it pretty hard. So it was natural for people to assume I mean, that's all that anybody had ever heard me do down here .It was very self-consciously about learning something new. Where it would take me, I didn't know, and kind of didn't want to know. I kind of just try to roll with things and see where they take me."
For a while, from the outside, it looked like country music would take her to a solid spot in the Texas roots pantheon, a modest post where she could play the state as much as she liked, make a decent little living, and ride the Willie circuit with fellow up-and-comers like the Hollisters and Jesse Dayton. Texas would have liked that, but Texas didn't have Springsteen echoing through its head. Texas, used to thinking that Texas is as big as it gets, wasn't thinking bigger.
Mary Cutrufello was.
"And then all of a sudden I'm doing 'Darkness on the Edge of Town,' and what the hell is that about? That's what I grew up on. That's what I played for 12 years before I got here. That's why I picked up a guitar. Without the long view of perspective, there were a lot of people that thought I had kind of wandered off my path. If anything, the foray into country music was the experiment. And it was cool, and I'm glad that I did it, and I learned a bunch, and I made it work for me as a way to make a living. But what I do now, that was the sound in my head when I had my Wilson."
It's all part of my rock and roll fantasy...
"Here's what I believe Mary wants. I believe that Mary wants to play in hockey rinks. She likes big stages, she likes to run around, she likes the connection with people. And the more people she connects with, the more it feeds her. She's a true believer."
This is Holly Gleason speaking. Gleason runs a boutique media and artist-development firm called Joe's Garage out of Nashville. She spent 11 years as a music journalist, jumped the fence to work as a publicist for Sony Nashville in 1991, and started Joe's Garage two years later. Her clients, aside from Mary, include Rodney Crowell, Asleep at the Wheel, Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless and Brooks & Dunn.
"I midwife dreams for a living," she says. "And if you look at my clients, I'm not bad at it."
Gleason took Mary on around 1994 on the basis of a demo cassette and began the process of shepherding the country upstart toward a career.
"It was basically that thing of talking about music, and talking about why you do it, and talking about how hard it is, and talking about what to expect, and talking about what's realistic to expect. And Mary didn't know any of that stuff. She had no expectations. She knew that she was living in Texas, she knew that she could work as much as she wanted to, and she knew that she loved to play the guitar. That's what Mary knew."
Gleason heard more, even through the hiss of a cheapo demo tape. She told Mary: "I think you can have hockey rinks. I think you can change lives."
It starts with perception, buzz, heat. Getting the name out. Gleason made her big push in 1997, slipping Mary into a showcase during Nashville's Extravaganza.
It was not, Gleason says, a particularly sexy showcase, but "I know how to get people out," she says. "You get on the phone, you call people up, you pester them, you leverage them, you beg them. Sometimes you just invite them."
When Mary hit the stage, the room was packed with movers. Matraca Berg, author of "Strawberry Wine," among other No. 1 singles, was in the audience. Georgia Satellites guitarist Dan Baird was there. Journalist David Zimmerman from USA Today was watching. A&R reps from CBS and Arista listened, alongside the head of Madonna's publishing company.
"There was anticipation in the room," Gleason remembers, "because people knew that I know. But they weren't prepared for it. Mary got five standing ovations in a 40-minute set. Got an encore in a very strict no-encore scenario." Mary used the encore to debut "Love's to Blame," a song she had co-written with Steve Earle.
"Immediately we get her off the stage and we take her outside and it was like, people were lined up in the street." Arista picked up the dinner tab at one of Nashville's "big industry late-night hangs," and Gleason and Mary headed home, where Gleason prepared to jet off to the Grammy Awards.
"When I got home there were five messages on my answering machine: 'don't sign with anyone until you talk to us,' 'don't sign with anyone until you talk to us,' 'can't make a deal until you talk to us.' I'm changing planes in Cleveland trying to get to the Grammy Awards and it's like six more messages from six different labels."
And a message from Zimmerman at USA Today, asking if Mary could stay over in Nashville for an interview and photo shoot.
"I'm in Cleveland with all my fucking carry-ons, schlepping through the airport trying to write down names on the wall, and I've got Mary blowing up."
My mama told me, you better shop around...
"She and I had been talking for a long time about what the priorities are," Gleason remembers. "What is it you really want out of a record deal. And Mary's deal was, she wants to be broken. Because lots of people get record deals. Lots of people get high-dollar record deals, but it's not necessarily what's going to get you broken."
What will get you broken -- out of the pack, into the limelight -- is the full and wholehearted backing of a major record label. Not just one A&R guy who really loves your music. Not just the prestigious head of a label blowing smoke up your ass. You've got to have all the resources on your side: the sales department, marketing, promotions, publicity, video, everybody. It's a mistake, Gleason says, made by many fledgling artists: They don't think about a record company's "other" departments. "And if you want to be broken, then that's something you need to think about."
Mary and Gleason thought about it long and hard, shopping to a short list of three or four labels, playing showcases, "circuit-riding" through the various offices, meeting everyone, reading who "got" Mary and who didn't, "thumping" labels to gauge their "vibe," to get a sense of who they were and how hard they would work for her, "because it's like a marriage, you're in it for at least ten years if you're successful."
"There was always one or two really big disconnects at the different labels," Gleason says. "Just, you know, the vibe wasn't right. I know that sounds really nonspecific, but having worked at a record company, I think if you don't connect with people in departments, they don't get you, they don't know how to work for you."
One suitor, for instance, thought he could move maybe 100,000 copies of a Mary Cutrufello CD. "Pfft," says Gleason. "They were out."
CBS flew a team into Houston to watch Mary play at Rudyard's the night before her South by Southwest showcase in Austin. Geffen too was courting Mary hard. And there was someone else watching the Rudyard's gig to whom neither Mary nor Gleason had given much thought.
"There was this little guy standing next to her attorney, and two songs into the set he said, 'I'll sign her. Tell me what you want.' We had never really thought of Mercury as a contender. He came back and said, you know, 'I really want to sign you, I get you.' And we thanked him and went out to dinner with somebody from another label."
But Mary's attorney Seth Lichtenstein knew that the little guy from Mercury was Steve Greenberg, an up-and-comer at the label, the man behind Hanson, and he suggested that Mary pay him some attention.
So Mary and Gleason met with the departments at Mercury.
"The radio promotion guy was really great," Gleason says, "and he was very straight-up, and he said, 'I don't know what I can do with you.' And I'm like, 'Okay, well, this guy tells the truth.' "
Mercury's publicist was duly impressed by the fact that Zimmerman's story on Mary had run on the cover of USA Today, just the day before Mary's Mercury meetings.
The last Mercury meeting of the day was with marketing director Marty Maidenberg, who'd made his bones at Mercury with John Mellencamp.
"They had so much chemistry," Gleason says of the Maidenberg/Cutrufello powwow, "and he so totally got her. Watching her talk to him and leaning over his desk, I thought, 'These two people have a bond.' Marketing is incredibly important in breaking records. Because what you need in a world of nine billion records being released every year is a warrior, somebody that's so passionate about what you do that they go out and fight for you.
Sitting down with Mercury honcho Danny Goldberg the next day didn't hurt. The man who had managed artists as diverse as Bonnie Raitt and Nirvana made a compelling pitch to Mary's sense of artistry, and Mary and Gleason retreated to draw up their wish list: solid tour support money, control of imaging and advertising, a cap on independent promotion expenses, a video budget, etc.
"We purposefully decided not to take the screaming, in-your-face advance," Mary says. "When there's a bidding war, you can drive the advance to astronomical proportions designed to overwhelm you with the sheer penis size of the label, basically. And we're like, 'Yeah yeah, whatever.' When you negotiate a deal, you can be in a situation where you don't have as much leverage to get what you need to make your record work. Commitments to tour support, or recording budgets, video budgets, whatever. Every negotiation is different and I can only speak for my own, but those were a lot more important to me than getting a huge chunk of money up front. It's like, 'Hey, you want to be a rock star? Check this out. Buy your Lexus now, we'll worry about it later.' Naw. You're talking about somebody who lives in a van for 50,000 miles a year. I wouldn't have enough room in a Lexus."
"So," says Gleason, "Mary has a record deal." Six records with an option after two. "She got a good advance and she got a nice fund to make her record. It was an A deal. She went to California, had all those hotshots on her record. And she had a really good royalty rate."
Mary signed with Mercury the day before the Country Music Awards. It was a big day. She did a photo shoot, and promos for Farm Aid, on which she had been booked, watched Patty Loveless, George Strait and George Jones sing, went to see John Fogerty play at the Ryman Auditorium, hung out backstage with drummer Kenny Aronoff, who would play on her record as well, and then went off to sit in with Jack Ingram at a late-night gig.
"That's one thing about Mary," Gleason says. "Mary has no problem hanging. You throw it at her, and Mary will just keep swinging. A lot of artists do not have that kind of work ethic or that kind of stamina."
She would need it.
So you wanna be a rock and roll star...
"I tried very hard," Mary recalls, "not to have any expectations. Because I think it's a good way to get off the path. You need to follow the path and go where it's taking you, and if you overburden yourself with expectations, you're likely to lose sight of the path.
"That said, I wanted to sell a bunch of records and play a lot. I wanted to rock. I wanted to be able to go out and support a record that I really believed in and play to a lot of people and move them. That look on their face when you look down and they're just like, wow. That's what I've always tried to do, and I was looking forward to being able to do that on a larger scale. And I thought I had all the tools in my arsenal to do that."
She recorded the record, When the Night Is Through, in Los Angeles. Mercury put the muscle behind her with producer Thom Panunzio (U2, et al.), drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, Bob Seger), bassist Bob Glaub (Jackson Browne, John Fogerty) and keyboardist Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers). The record was released on a Tuesday, August 25, 1998. Two days later, Mary played the first single, "She Can't Let Go," to millions on The Tonight Show, guesting with Rob Schneider and Halle Berry.
"Do you have any idea how heavy that is?" Gleason asks. "Stuff like that doesn't happen unless you have the elephant dollars behind you."
After the show, Mary flew back to Houston and hit the road with the two rock star indulgences purchased with her Mercury money: a used 15-passenger van, and a wireless rig for her blond Telecaster.
"It changed my life. It was really the only I-got-a-big-record-deal-and-I'm-gonna-spend-some-money thing that I bought, and it probably cost more than every other piece of musical equipment that I took on that tour. It really freed me up. That and adding a keyboard player, because all of a sudden I wasn't responsible for every single note in the mid-range, and those two things together really freed me up and let the live show take off. I loved playing the bigger stages, because I could spread out and fill them, which is what I always wanted to do."
She toured with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Gov't Mule and Greg Allman and Susan Tedeschi and Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies.
There was an explosion of press. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Interview, People, USA Today, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Boston Herald, Politically Incorrect, Austin City Limits, CNN.
"It was just ridiculous," Gleason says. And except for some grumblings in the Texas press, wondering where our honky-tonk queen had gone, "Everyone agreed that she was great."
Mary Cutrufello was breaking.
"One of my sicko pleasures," Gleason claims, "is to go into the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel, all these businessmen, it's very tight." One day Gleason took Mary there for a drink. "We're sitting there with our glasses of Jack Daniels, just shooting the shit .Just hanging out, our work was done. And these three very straight-looking guys are staring at Mary .And one guy goes, 'You play a white guitar, don't you?' And Mary goes, 'Well, it's a blond Telecaster, but yeah.' He goes, 'Oh, my God, I told them it was you.' And the guy does this whole rap about how he'd seen her on TV and she's just fucking amazing, and da da da. That's how far into the culture she's penetrated. Straight guys in the bar in the Plaza Hotel are staring at her because they know who she is."
"People were into it," Mary remembers. "All the breaks fell our way. It just felt really good and it felt really strong. I had a record that I could stand behind and go out and fight for every night, and a lot of people on our side, and everything was cool. Except "
And the walls come tumblin' down...
"It's an amazing story," Gleason says. "It shows you how flawed the system is. Because when you think about it, a company that manufactures booze buys a record company, that company isn't enough, they sell their orange juice division and buy another company. I mean, that's like playing Monopoly. But the effect it has, and the lives it impacts, are insane. That's the story. The story of how you do almost everything right, and make no mistakes that cannot in other demonstrable circumstances be overcome, and end up stymied. It's uncommon in that she had a lot of success in spite of what happened. It's not uncommon in that a lot of artists are stillborn. Or barely born. That happens a lot. It happens way more than otherwise. But to get what Mary got done, and then kind of falter, that's pretty unusual."
The rumors had entered circulation before When the Night Is Through was even released in August 1998. Seagram would purchase Polygram, the parent company of Mercury. The music industry's Big Six companies would contract to a Big Five. Rosters would be shuffled, artists would be dropped, staffs would be laid off, or re-purposed. Or something. For months, nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. Nobody knew for sure what the industry would look like after the merger.
"I had heard rumors of it all through '98," Mary says. "I was already inexorably in the pipeline by the time the rumors started. I wasn't sure what to think of it when I first heard it. I wasn't sure what it would mean. But after I made a couple of phone calls, I was like aw, fuck."
What news of the merger meant, initially, was widespread uncertainty. Label department heads, once lined up in unison behind When the Night Is Through, were suddenly more worried about whether or not they would have a job come Monday. Promoting records suddenly took a backseat to job hunting.
"Finally around Thanksgiving," Gleason says, "they got the new team in. And people were just sitting down on the job. Danny Goldberg was a lame duck. He didn't want to do anything, and I don't blame him. He couldn't see any reason to lift a finger to help break artists that [the new regime was] going to get credit for. So he stayed in his office and just read the paper. Meanwhile, you'd walk through the building at Mercury and you'd see these poor people -- many of them had been there ten, 15 years -- getting the definite vibe that they were not going to have jobs."
Mary and Gleason met with the new team just before Thanksgiving.
That was not, however, what Mary was seeing on the road. The tour support money was forthcoming, contractual obligations were being fulfilled, but the teamwork was gone, the new ideas weren't coming. Marty Maidenberg, a 14-year veteran at Mercury, was being reassigned to new jobs what seemed like every couple of days. When the Night Is Through wasn't being serviced to retail.
"Stuff that should be connecting just wasn't quite connecting," Gleason says. "So we roll along, and Mary becomes more and more despondent about the fact that the thing that she had was this guy who got her. Now she's in this building full of people who don't get her. She was getting a lot of boilerplate."
Finally, in April, as Mercury morphed into Island/Def Jam, Mary and Gleason reached an agreement with the new management. Mary, at her request, would be released from her contract.
"We just realized," Mary says, "that the moment for me on that floor of that building had kind of come and gone. The nice thing about it is we had a really good contract, and they owed me a bunch of money, which they paid, without a whole lot of arm-twisting. They were very straight-up about it. We're like, 'This isn't really the label that we signed with.' And they're like, 'No, not really.' "
It was nobody's fault, really. Neither Gleason nor Mary wants to place blame.
"This," Gleason says, "is the kind of stuff that happens every time two big multinational corporations swallow each other. There was nothing special about what happened to her. There was no conspiracy about 'We're going to screw this guitar player from Houston, Texas.' It's just the inertia and paralysis that sets in . It's a really helpless feeling. It's like your kid is running into traffic, they're going to get creamed, and there's nothing you can do."
Expectations or no, this was not the way Mary Cutrufello had hoped to get broken.
I get by with a little help from my friends...
After almost a year of hard touring, morning-show radio appearances and endless telephone interviews, the tour support money dried up. Mary's reaction was to take the Mercury payout and go back on the road. She hooked up with the Allman Brothers on their NASCAR-sponsored summer shed tour, road-managing herself to save money. It was a last gasp, wringing one more dream out of the record.
"I really wanted to do a summer tour in support of a big rock and roll record," she says. "It's kind of like one of those dreams you have when you're 13 and playing along with your favorite song on your tennis racket."
And then it was over. She ended up selling about 40,000 records.
"I was emotionally tired. I was physically tired. I was psychically tired. So at first I spent a lot of time doing nothing of a musical nature. I watched the end of baseball season. That was my main concern. I took several months and I just didn't want to engage the music business right then. In the middle of promoting that record I was just running on energy and the excitement of things I'd always wanted to do, and then all of a sudden it stopped and I realized what actually happened."
She was 29 years old. She was burned. And she didn't have anyone to help carry the weight. "I kind of cried on my own shoulder," she says now.
"One of Mary's greatest gifts," Gleason says, "is her ability to be self-reliant. She can road-manage her own tour. She can electrify the whole stage. She can carry a band that's not happening. In this scenario, she had to turn it over to a bunch of other people. She had to trust them with her dream. The check didn't clear the bank. Somebody who's self-reliant tends to take that on themselves."
Mary took it on herself hard. After the Allman tour, she dropped out of sight, retreating to Minneapolis, one of her favorite road cities, to regroup, and to see -- after perhaps too much self-reliance on the road -- about rekindling the kind of romantic entanglements that drive her songs.
"Since I didn't have a band, I figured I'd experiment with that social-life thing everyone's always talking about."
She also thought, for a while, about hanging it up.
"I went through a period when I just didn't know what to do. I was like, damn, this is all about how you walk through the 25th floor of the World Wide Plaza building in New York. It's not about the music. It's about working the label. It's about do the people that are in charge of your career have the good grace of the people in charge of their career. All of that stuff. And I'm like, this is not why I got into this. And I can recall more than one night sitting at my computer looking at grad school Web pages. Man, I was over it. I have a degree from a really good school, maybe I should just go do something else, where the difference between why I got into it and what it really is isn't so big. I love learning, I love the academy, I could probably be happy there.
"But then there's this guitar. I could never wrap my head around the idea of there not being that guitar."
But as tied as she was to the Telecaster, it took more than a guitar to get Mary's feet back beneath her. It took belief.
The day after her release from Mercury, Mary had been booked at a Voters For Choice benefit in New York City, and commiserated with headliner Bonnie Raitt, who had been through label woes of her own over the years. Raitt and Gleason talked while Mary played, and Raitt told the manager to keep Mary plugging, that she could hear the passion, that Mary was "the real thing."
"I heard that," Mary says, "and it kind of put the whole Mercury thing in perspective."
Then, toward then end of the Allman tour, came the call from John Mellencamp's people. His wife had seen Mary on The Tonight Show and wanted her to play her birthday party. That paycheck extended her NASCAR tour another week.
And finally, Mary -- whose touring band had included onetime E Street Band keyboardist Danny Frederici -- got a call from Springsteen himself, inviting her to a show in Cleveland. She was there.
"The show itself was just a complete validation of 'Just get up there and rock,' " Mary remembers. "And the rest of it can't stop that. But I also got to chat with Bruce for a while, and we talked, and he gave me a pep talk about keeping the faith .And you just keep writing. And you just believe, you know? Bruce is notoriously generous, there's no telling how many people he's given that speech to at one time or another, but it was exactly what I needed to hear, and he picked the exact right words to say. Between that and Bonnie Raitt just standing there and watching me .It's kind of weird, like fledgling-rock-singer-saved-by-famous-friends kind of thing, and I don't mean it to come across that way, but there is something to be said for people that have paid as heavy dues as those guys have, that come out and they look at me and they go, 'Yeah, that's the real deal, and that'll stand the test.' Or saying to me personally, 'What you've got is not something to be taken lightly, or thrown away and disregarded .' I mean, for a long time I was like, you know, who's got a good American Studies program? And then I was like, well, this is American studies. Maybe with a small s, but a capital A."
Ain't it good to be alive on a sunny day...
"Mary," Gleason says, "like many, many kids, was a fan. Mary sat out in the house. Mary had the connection. Mary knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the connection, when it's coming off the stage. Well, imagine what it's like when you're on the stage and it's coming back at you. You probably had that moment, didn't you? The oh fuck moment when you're a fan? Imagine if you've got everybody having those oh fuck moments right at you? .When Mary's ready to get back on the horse and go chase the dream some more, the dream is waiting for her."
After a year and a half of laying low, in Minneapolis and Houston, watching baseball, digging the cold weather, making some kind of sense of the wild ride in her head, Mary started thinking about that guitar again. She is 31 now.
She's started writing songs again, and has "the nucleus" of an album completed. She's booked a series of solo acoustic dates around Texas (including Saturday, June 23, at Rudyard's) to ease herself back in, and because "I want people to meet the new characters in the songs," she says. "They've been kind of living with me in my house for a year, and I want them to meet my friends, you know?"
This is not the common response to "being spit out the back end." For most artists, one grind through the mill is enough to convince them to think small, to scale back, to avoid the machinery.
"And I know why," she laughs.
"I think I see the nature of it more clearly than I did three years ago, but it hasn't dissuaded me from the good things that it can bring. Everything's different now, but it's good. And it puts me in a really good position this time out, because I know all that stuff now .For all the things that didn't break the way I wanted them to break on the last record, the randomness of that is equaled by the randomness with which something cool might break. You work hard and that helps. A good setup helps. And a good team and a great contract helps. But random stuff good or bad can happen, and I think it's important to understand. It's not always your fault. It's not always your fault that you sell ten million records, either. There's a lot of serendipity involved, on either side."