Rebel from the North

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."

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Hobart Rowland