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."

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Brad Tyer