Identity Crisis

Well, Houston has lost another top-notch musician, and this time the Music Awards jinx can't be blamed. Mary Cutrufello -- who, believe it or not, never won a single one of our awards -- failed to return from her usual winter sojourn on the Minnesota tundra this year and has all but closed the door on ever moving back down to her summer digs here on the bayou.

"I'm a rambler," she says. "There's no plan. Permanent and me don't go very well together. I may come back, I may never come back. I don't know. And I'm happy with that. If I come back, I'll know exactly why."

She is coming back temporarily, and true to her word, she does know exactly why. She wants to show off her new band to Texas and Texas to her new band. On September 19, she'll be back at her old Rudyard's stomping ground for an early show. "I put a band together the week before I went to South By Southwest, which is why I went to South By," she says. "I was telling people, 'Watch me when I come back,' 'cause I already knew what I had."

By then she already knew what she had had enough of, too, and that was what she deems is Houston's faltering music scene. "I love Houston as a town," she says. "It's not my home, but I spent almost a third of my life there. I love the town as a town. As a music town -- it isn't one. Bits and pieces are there, but it never seems to have congealed. It's too bad -- the city's so huge. For me personally, though, I needed a breath of fresh air for my musical reality, and I needed to leave town to make that happen."

Keep in mind that Cutrufello left town in January, though she's been back a couple of times since. Things were bleak then. Houston had just come out of one of the most traumatic years in its history, and the clubs were suffering. Cutrufello missed out on Pam Robinson's single-handed Washington Avenue revitalization, the success of Hands Up Houston in bringing more and better bands to town, and the continued development of many of our young acts and new venues.

But there's no getting around the fact that with regard to pop/rock over the past 20 years, the lake-ringed quasi-Scandinavian metropolis has us beat. "I've traveled around the country and been to virtually every market of consequence," she says, "and Minneapolis had hands down the best, the most professional and the most vibrant music scene…There are people who make a living as cartage guys here, for God's sake. I'd never heard of cartage guys outside of New York, L.A. and Nashville."

Right about now you're probably about as flummoxed as Racket about what a cartage guy does. No such animal exists here. Apparently, they make a living humping amps and instruments from musicians' homes to their recording studios. Say you're Jeff Beck and you have 45 guitars and a skyscraper of 128 amps, and you figure you're gonna need every last one of them, not to mention your djembe drum and the ten-foot gong you picked up the last time you were debauching in Bangkok, to express your muse. You can't possibly take them all to the studio yourself, ergo cartage guys, the road-less roadies of the studio.

One suspects that a small army of cartage guys could subsist on working for Prince alone, so often does the pint-sized velveteen Valentino log studio time. But Cutrufello is quick to point out that Minneapolis has produced many more artists: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Semisonic and Soul Asylum come to mind in quick succession.

"There are so many bands that have come out of here and made it to the next level in the past 20 years. What that does to a scene is make people suddenly think that going to the next level is not something that other people do. Any one of us could be the next person to write 'Closing Time' or 'Runaway Train' or 'Purple Rain' or whatever it may be. I think that really makes a difference in the way a scene perceives itself."

Allow Racket, if you will, to slip into rant mode.

That's it exactly: the way a scene perceives itself. Houston's rock scene has a poor self-image, because no band has made it big in a long time. The examples of ZZ Top and (to a lesser extent) King's X can only drive the hopes of local musicians for so long, and that time has passed. The prevailing idea out there now is that no one gets out of here alive without moving to Austin or L.A. And can anyone tell Racket when that formula worked for a Houston band as well as staying home has for ZZ Top? Has moving to Austin or California ever worked for anyone from Houston at all?

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