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Mary Cutrufello rocks on her new CD and on the Tonight Show

By Paula Felps

AUGUST 31, 1998:  After spending more than seven years shredding country music stereotypes, Mary Cutrufello changed her tune. Last October, she signed a six-record deal with Mercury Records and set her sights on moving forward by going back to her roots. Her major label debut, When the Night Is Through, hit stores last Tuesday, followed immediately by an appearance Thursday, August 27 on The Tonight Show.

For Cutrufello fans, the album isn't too surprising. Although the honky-tonk accent is absent from the sound, the fiery signature guitar style remains. That playing has been turned up a notch, showing an intense, straight-up rock style.

Cutrufello chose to embrace her rock roots after what she calls a "long apprenticeship in country music." Although she believes her country music experience made her a better writer, it didn't sate her voracious musical appetite and she found herself craving the kind of heartland rock made by such artists as Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp. So last year, she transformed a promising country music career - which already had included touring with Texas country icon Jimmie Dale Gilmore - into a rock-solid future.

"This is a rock 'n' roll record, completely," says Cutrufello who is wearing her trademark black jeans and flannel shirt in Arlington's Pappadeaux's despite the Texas heat. "There's no crossover [to country]. There's no connection to that world at all. This has been a lot of fun to do, because this is the music I grew up on. This is the music I love."

She began exploring country music while studying at Yale, and those explorations led her to Texas. In Houston, she honed her craft, earning national attention for her unique sound, style and unlikely presence in a genre dominated by white Southern males. This non-traditional Connecticut Yankee showed them an African-American woman in dreadlocks could play traditional country music.

"The stuff that I've been doing down here is fun. It's challenging; it's different, and I've learned a lot of respect for the culture," she explains. "But to go back to the kind of music I grew up with has been like a homecoming for me. It's where I feel the most comfortable. And that's where I get the most natural, intuitive performances."

Cutrufello was being courted by a number of labels when she signed with Mercury and claims the decision was based on the label's understanding that she was making a transition from country to rock. She said the label was very hands-off the new album, allowing her creative freedom to do the disc the same way it played out in her mind.

"I wouldn't change a note of this record. I had a sound in my head that we managed to get on tape. I had a producer, Thom Panunzio [U2, Stevie Nicks, Black Sabbath] who was completely down with that sound. He heard it, too. Our idea of what rock 'n' roll should be was the same. So the way he heard the songs being recorded was the same way I heard them. We brought the sound and he brought a knowledge of how to capture it."

Helping capture that sound was a core band that included Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, Smashing Pumpkins), Bob Glaub (John Fogerty, Jackson Browne) and Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers). At her side was long-time bandmember Roland Denney, who switched from stand-up to electric bass when Cutrufello pulled the plug on country music. When the Night Is Through is a rock 'n' roll storybook in a dozen vignettes. Cutrufello writes songs as clear-cut stories, not esoteric riddles.

"I like to create characters that everyone can identify with," she says. "I like to create a character, bring them to a moment of decision and see what they do. Some handle it better than others. There's a point of view implied in all of them that pretty much anybody can relate to."

Perhaps the most compelling, rocking and rough-riding track on the disc is the closing cut, "Good Night Dark Angel," about a woman who is left behind to pick up the pieces after her lover commits murder - then suicide. It's a fierce combination of lyrical mastery and gut-wrenching musicianship, one that resonates long after the final strains have faded. But Cutrufello's world isn't all shadows and regret. Tunes such as "Sunny Day" and "Tonight's the Night" show some upbeat realizations about life. She takes the twang out of previous releases Sweet Promise and Miss You #3 converting them into rock gems. "Sister Cecil," a favorite of her live shows and one of her oldest compositions, is an endearing song regardless of what genre it is poured into. It's the story of Cutrufello and her younger sister.

"The song is totally true. I was 17, she was 16. I was the smart one, but she was the one who got all the sexual skills. I was always floored by her audacity; it was so out of my realm of understanding. It's basically about watching a sibling have all the fun and not knowing how to do that yourself."

Of course, Cutrufello has caught on and made up for lost time, now having the time of her life. These days, it is others who are watching wide-eyed while she boldly blazes her own trail. She played Farm Aid last year, ending up in an onstage jam with Willie Nelson, Beck and Dave Matthews. After her Tonight Show appearance, she'll launch an East Coast club tour and there's talk of joining a major tour as a support act.

"Relentless touring. That's what I want. There's lots of stuff on the table and I'm totally jonesing to get back on the road, to play live. I've got plenty more to say. Lots more to do," she says. "This is the kind of music that captured me when I was a kid, and it endures throughout time. It's about great songs, well played by people who mean it. That's what it's about. And that's what I want to keep alive."

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