Mary Cutrufello - Tougher than the rest

"Oh my God" and an urge to move stageside are common reactions among those seeing Mary Cutrufello for the first time. Already a popular performer at clubs throughout her Texas home, Cutrufello first became known to a wide audience when she toured with Jimmie Dale Gilmore behind his 1996 release Braver, Newer World. It was an experimental record that expanded upon Gilmore's country credentials, and he went to the mat for it by taking Cutrufello along on the road. Her blistering guitar work contributed a glinting edge to his music, and the solo he granted her at each performance was a fair substitute for an arena-rock fireworks display. Fans' demands for Cutrufello to release a CD of her own eventually yielded Who To Love And When To Leave in 1996. Dashed together for a mere $600, the DIY release failed to satisfy many supporters: The guitar playing that provides such memorable drama onstage seemed buried in the mix, and the songwriting quality was inconsistent. But Cutrufello seems to have committed her music as she's heard it all along on When The Night Is Through, her major-label debut on Mercury. The result is a fully realized rock star aborning. "This record is me being an eight-to-ten-year-old in Connecticut [her childhood home]," she says. "Listening to WNEW was a big part of my growing up, being a member of the rock 'n' roll faithful. I was never much of a joiner, but that was the one thing I could relate to." The rocker she related to most was, and remains, Bruce Springsteen. "Springsteen is a really pervasive thing [in the Northeast], plus it's great music. He's a ferocious live performer." Like testimony, she invokes an E Street Band performance on the Human Rights Now tour in 1988. "It's about making the connection, whether it's for 20 people or 20,000. The 20 shouldn't be slighted because there aren't 19,000 more, and vice versa. It's a difficult thing to do. Springsteen did it. That's a night I look back on whenever I hear, 'They were great in clubs.'" Mary Cutrufello is great in clubs. Venues shrink to the immediacy of her animal grace as she charges the air, her guitar forcefully arresting any potentially wayward attention. In Cutrufello, though, the focused aggression of an athlete is disarmed by her warm smile and the affection she exhibits utterly unselfconsciously toward fans. "Playing live is really what I live to do," she says. "It's a chance to make a really powerful connection with people, and it feels great to do that." She credits fans with providing song ideas. "I'm like a fly on the wall," she says, noting that even as the center of attention, she observes audience interactions suggesting whole scenarios. Talking with fans, she hears their stories. "You're the most important voice of all," she says; "I hope the characters in my songs are people that folks will recognize." Characters on her new CD will attract knowing nods: the flirty younger sister who gets all the guys, the emotionally struggling newly single mom, the young man caged in small town frustrations, the commitment-shy 30-year-old sampling what she's missing, the woman who would rather live with cold embers than none at all. Musically, killer chorus follows killer chorus, and any residual concerns about her songwriting scurry like bats from the dawn. Substantially gone, as well, are the country influences that characterized her earlier material. "I like lots of different things and I can play lots of different things," she explains, "but rock 'n' roll is my home. I'm an inquisitive person. I had a degree in American history [from Yale] when I went to Texas. It's a fertile land, and I had a good time exploring a lot of different things." Springsteen producer Thom Panunzio (whose credits also include U2, Black Sabbath and Lone Justice) collaborated with Cutrufello on the new album. Backing her is a dream team: drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, Smashing Pumpkins), bassist Bob Glaub (John Fogerty, Jackson Browne) and keyboardist Rami Jaffee (the Wallflowers), plus background vocalists on a number of tracks. It's tempting to say her songs are good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, but that would substantially understate the freshness of that sound in this post-Nirvana era. Moreover, it would sell short the considerable contribution of Cutrufello's millennial perspective: It's an intelligent, but not tiresomely hip, outlook of self-determination in all-too-human dilemmas. And then there is the thrill of the passion with which she invests every song. "I'm a fan and I'm a believer," she says, "but I'm also a performer. That's part of my responsibility to rock 'n' roll. That's part of a covenant between me and the people that come out to see it."