On a chilly Minneapolis day in November 2011, Mary Cutrufello sat down in a recording studio and began work on a short collection of country songs. It was a happy day and a fruitful session. “Finally,” Mary says, “I was making the country record I'd been wanting to make for years and years. The sound of the honky tonks is back!”
The Saint Paul-based Cutrufello, 42, has been known as a Texas honky-tonk heroine, a fiery Midwestern roots-rocker, and a powerhouse acoustic performer in her more than 20 years in the music business. Connecticut-raised and Yale-educated, she's made records showcasing all of those facets of her identity as her musical journey has taken her from the East Coast to Houston and now to Minnesota. But it's been over 15 years since the release of who to love + when to leave, her only straight country recording, in 1996. “It was time,” she says. “Even though I've gone on and done other things musically, that country sound and feel has never been far away. It's always in my mp3 player, always in my Tele playing, and always in my singing. I really wanted to focus on the singing part this time out.”
Recorded at Bathtub Shrine Recording Studio in Minneapolis by drummer/producer Greg Schutte with a minimum of accompaniment, Fireflies Till They're Gone brings Cutrufello's vocals to the forefront. Those who have only heard her full-throated rock wail may be surprised at the control and quiet intensity she brings to these performances.
“That's the style. Write—or find—some great songs, crawl inside 'em, and bring out their soul. There's no need to stand on a speaker cabinet or a pool table to get your point across,” she says with a wink, knowing full well that's exactly what she was doing when the Texas country world first came across her as a 23-year-old firebrand in 1993. “Well, yeah, you can do that, too...but this is a record for a different part of the night.”
Indeed. Fireflies Till They're Gone is a quiet trip through the soul of country's late-night melancholy, the sound of the last cigarette, the lonely nightcap at the kitchen table by the 40-watt light of the range hood. Four of Cutrufello's own songs share space with two classics of the genre to tell the story.
The album begins with “My Wife's the Only One Who Knows,” in which a husband has resigned himself to a life of cheating...and apparently, so has his wife. “Well, these things do happen,” Cutrufello says. “All the decisions seem okay, or at least defensible, at the time, but the next thing you know, you're way down some messed-up road, and it's not so easy to stop, or turn around, or back out of it. Country music used to be full of moral-dilemma songs like this. That's what attracted me to it, actually. And then of course I had to write a few of my own. This is one of my very favorites.” Austin bass legend Kevin Smith played upright for just the right vintage vibe, and Cutrufello added percussion by “rubbing my hands together in front of a really hot mic. I kept trying to explain to Greg that I wanted this, and finally he goes, okay, let's just mic what you're doing right there.”
“Eight Second Lives” is Cutrufello's ode to the rodeo. “The cowboys, sure, but also us pickers, singers and dancers, semi-pro ballplayers...all of us out on the Interstate in the wee hours coming home from another go-round with the Dream. The guy in the song is made up, but I have a friend who played minor-league ball who swears it's someone he knew from his playing days...and wonders how I knew him, too. That's when I realized just how pervasive the Dream really is. How much “loneliness and glory” really resonates with so many people, whether they embrace it or just wish they had, or still could. It's like an article of faith that the Dream is still out there, no matter how it plays out for you.” Gruff-voiced Saint Paul singer-songwriter Nick Hensley sings the harmony part.
“I Just Can't Fall Out of Love with You,” says Cutrufello, “is about as elemental a country heartbreak tune as I know how to write. Everything about it—the chords, the melody, the sentiment, the pedal steel—is right down the middle. Pushing envelopes and mixing genres is cool, but sometimes nestling right into the pocket of a style is pretty cool, too. Jake Hoffman, a great steel player out of Boise that I worked with in the Pinto Bennett Band in 2009, played on this and he gets it exactly right!”
“On a Sunday in March, 55082” (the title refers to the ZIP code for Stillwater, MN) is “my mash note to the North Country. I was living in Austin (Texas) in March of 2008. Now, March is a great time to be in Texas, with the bluebonnets in bloom and the temperature pushing 80. It can also be a trying time to be up North, where winter really starts to outstay its welcome. But I missed Minnesota anyway, and to prove it, I wrote a love song about arguably the crappiest month of the year. As for the line, 'it's snowin' down in Dallas,' well, March is a good month for weird weather...but as it turns out, it really did snow in Dallas in March of that year.” This recording features Cleve and Sweet Mary Hattersley and John Jordan of Austin's legendary Greezy Wheels. “It was one of those things where Cleve and Sweet Mary and I had bumped into each other a few times right in a row,” Cutrufello relates. “I had this new song, and Cleve said let's cut it! So we did. I just love Sweet Mary's playing. So delicate. A violin, not a fiddle!”
Rounding out the album are two tasty covers from the Outlaw songbook, Willie Nelson's “It's Not Supposed to Be That Way,” and Waylon's “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” a sad and insightful song from the pen of Allen Reynolds. “The Outlaw movement spoke to me deeply when I moved to Texas,” Cutrufello says. “The artists were rock stars, but the songs were songs. And guys like Waylon weren't afraid to have feelings, show emotion, or be vulnerable in a song.” Neither song has a long history in Cutrufello's setlist. “We've played all kinds of Outlaw songs over the years. I think the fact that these two are relatively new to me as a singer gives them a certain spark and energy.” That's Jake on steel again along with Steve Fulton on piano on the Willie tune, and the twin cellos of Minneapolis' Jelloslave on the Waylon tune.
“Sure! Jelloslave is a cool experimental band here in the Cities. Jacqueline [Ultan] and Michelle [Kinney] are great players who improvise off each other a lot. I love what they do. My take is totally live, one pass of guitar and vocals into one mic, but I wanted a pad of some sort to flesh it out. So I got Jackie and Michelle, who had never heard the tune before and didn't know its history, set up in the studio, played them my track, and told them to play what they felt. It's a bit unorthodox maybe, but I think it's beautiful.”
Beautiful it is. With Fireflies Till They're Gone, Mary Cutrufello comes back to the country and makes her mark again.
Texas honky-tonk stalwart turned Minnesota heartland rocker Mary Cutrufello is back! Seven years after moving to Minnesota, and three years after being sidelined with vocal nodes, Cutrufello returns with "35," a taut and rockin' collection of songs showcasing her writing, her guitar playing, and her once-again powerful voice.
"Believe me when I tell you," says Cutrufello almost breathlessly, "Nobody is happier than I am that this record even exists!" And while it is a welcome return to the microphone for the multi-talented and articulate singer/writer/guitarist, it also stands on its own as her strongest collection of songs and performances to date. Guitars chunk, wail, chop, and make all manner of surprising sounds. The vocal chorus of Andra Suchy and Twin Cities legend Mark Lickteig offers daring takes on the traditional backing vocal role. And above it all is Cutrufello's rehabbed and rejuvenated voice, at turns proud and pleading, telling her stories of desperation and redemption, wonder and resolve.
35 is a long road, or a long time, or a point in life when it's a daily fight against the ossifying forces and the leaden pull of comfort. F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed there are no second acts in American lives; 35 is when you find out if that means you.
Connecticut-raised, Yale-educated Mary Cutrufello spent the 1990's in Texas, where her hard-driving honky-tonk style won her a loyal following, as well as kudos from the local media (cover stories in the Dallas Observer and Austin Chronicle, the first of 2 appearances on "Austin City Limits"), and such Texas legends as Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Joe Ely, and Johnny Bush. Her first CD, 1996's live-to-tape "who to love + when to leave," showcased her gritty take on the honky-tonk tradition, and was hailed as "quite simply one of the sharpest, most essential country albums of the last decade" by Matt Weitz in the Dallas Observer. (Mary reissued "who to love" in 2005, on a single CD with her 1992 cassette "...and the Havoline Supremes.")
After that came a stylistic move back toward the rock that Cutrufello grew up on. While it left a few Texans confused, Cutrufello reminded them that "rock and roll is where I'm from, and as much as I love country, I have to give that part of me its voice too." In 1998, she released the critically-acclaimed "When the Night is Through" on Mercury Records. A spot on the "Tonight" show followed, as well as another "Austin City Limits" appearance and tours with the Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule, among others. But Mercury was swept away in the 1999 merger of Seagram's and PolyGram, and Mary's album was one of many casualties of that cataclysm. After some rambling and soul-searching, she ended up in Minnesota in early 2002.
"I'd moved to Texas to delve into honky-tonk music, and I guess in a way I moved to Minnesota to delve back into that straightforward midwestern rock sound I've always loved," she says. "I'd always had a great time when I passed through the Twin Cities on tour, and with the strong musical energy here, and the world-class players, I knew it'd be a great next place to be."
She put together a band and booked some gigs. "It was definitely starting over. But I had so much experience, so many miles, that it was actually kind of cool. We went to (ex-Prince keyboardist) Dr. Fink's studio and cut three tracks as a demo, which appear on the new album because I didn't think the performances could be improved upon. That band was that good. Those were the last recordings I made before the nodes. We were just starting to build up a head of steam when my voice stopped working."
"The nodes were awful," Cutrufello avers. "They didn't hurt or anything, but I had to shut down the band, basically stop talking for several months--let alone singing--and then do extensive rehab. I can't tell you what a scary feeling it is to open up your mouth and have nothing come out. I mean, my singing was always the most natural part of my game. I'd had some lessons to learn to breathe, but basically what you're hearing is hand-honed emotion. Not being able to sing...well, I'd say my head was messed up even more than my throat."
THE MAKING OF "35"
"'35' is the record I was about to make when the nodes happened," she continues. "I had a great heartland rock band, a strong bunch of songs, and the timing felt right." But the band disintegrated when Cutrufello's voice failed her, and the recording project was shelved for a year and a half. When she finally did enter the studio in early 2005, she found that a few things had changed.
"I used some new musicians, some old, and some I'd always wanted to work with. Actually, not having a working band at the time worked to my advantage. For the first time, I went into the studio NOT thinking about how the songs would be recreated live. That was a conceptual leap I'd never been able to make before, and I think it really freed me up to try different guitar textures, more complex vocal arrangements, and even the odd random noise!"
Working with Minneapolis drummer/producer Greg Schutte, basic tracks were recorded over 2 weeks, and overdubs over the next year. "That was another new process for me," says Cutrufello. "Since I couldn't sing, I had a job driving a delivery truck for FedEx Ground, and the only time Greg and I could get together was usually Sunday afternoons. We would work intensely for 5 or 6 hours, then burn everything to CD and I'd listen to it all for a week. I was surprised that the thing was able to hold together with those long gaps, but I found that I was very focused when I was in Greg's studio, and having time to listen really gave me time to think, too. A lot of times, I'd have an idea percolating all week, and then we'd just pick an amp and a guitar, set up mics, and roll."
For the vocal performances, Mary turned to Merel Bregante, a long-time friend and collaborator. Bregante produced 1996's "who to love + when to leave," as well as several songs for compilation CD's, and the two had remained close. "Merel has the ears and the gear, and he really believes in me. He knows how to get great vocal performances out of me, and I felt that was going to be extra important because of what had happened with the nodes and all. So Greg and I flew down to Austin and did the vocals in a long weekend. Merel and Greg really hit it off--knowing them both, I pretty much knew that would happen--and when we needed a larger setup for the mixes, we went right back down to Texas."
Recording was completed in April of 2006, and a first round of mixes took place in early May. After more listening, final mixing and mastering took place in September, and "35" was a reality.
SO WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?
"This is not a concept record," Cutrufello states rather emphatically. "Not that my other ones were per se, but they all did kind of work as song cycles, strings of narrative in a very self-conscious, 70s, golden-age-of-the-LP kind of way. That's kind of my home, musically. That and cast albums, which were what my parents listened to. And I still respect the hell out of records that do that. But this time, I wanted to just make 10 great songs and maybe let them talk to each other, but not try to make any larger collective point about the 10 of them."
It didn't start out that way. "The original idea was to call the album "American Rain," which was a song I wrote in the wake of the Columbine incident. It tells the story of a kid who wouldn't go so far as to do what those two kids did, but who can relate with an almost creepy completeness to the darkness that brought them there. And then you have things like "Sonic Girls," which is considerably lighter, but which still speaks to a level of teenage restlessness. You know, after "Jack & Diane" but before "Jody Girl." And I had this grand unified theory, and it was gonna all run together like "Racing in the Street" runs into "Promised Land" even though they're on side A and side B of [Springsteen's] "Darkness [on the Edge of Town.]"
"And I thought that was cool. But then I had some other songs that were working pretty well for me that had nothing to do with any of that, and finally I said WHY does it have to be grand or unified? I mean, "If You Don't Want Me No More," which I wrote with Kevin Bowe, is kind of a resigned kiss-off song, and "Out of the Fire" is way beyond what any of my teenage protagonists would have been ready for, as is "Down to the River"...and suddenly the light went on and I thought, well maybe this is a GOOD thing. And I think by just letting the songs be, they have their own worlds, and it's more like a city block of characters as opposed to an extended family...or an ensemble sitcom cast..."
Perhaps. But certain themes do come to the fore here, as they do in much of Cutrufello's work. There's the body-count desperation of "Bring on the Night" and her cover of Springsteen's "Take 'em as They Come," featuring a searing top-of-his-range vocal performance from Reckless Kelly's Willy Braun. There's the knowing sadness of love found and lost in "(I'll Still) Love You Forever"--which Mary says was actually written about the relationship of the Tobey Maguire and Michael Caine characters in the movie "The Cider House Rules"..."but nobody believes me when I tell them that!" There's the world-weary sexual outlaw driving through the stark badlands of western Nebraska in "Panhandle Wind," thinking about all the good men she's pushed away, and what the final cost of that might be.
If there is a grand unified theory, it might be that life is full of lose-lose situations, and bad ideas that spring from moments of inattention, impetuousness, or shortsightedness...or sometimes, from good ideas. "Down to the River," which closes the album, speaks to that. It first appeared in acoustic form on 2001's "Songs from the 6." Of all the songs on that record, Cutrufello says, "that was the one that really cried out for a band treatment. When I moved to Minnesota and put the rock band together, that song took wing right away." If there's any sentiment that ties "35" together, it may well be the last verse of "Down to the River":
well it's the promise
and the pain
and the faith that makes you strong
pay the price
take the blame
face the doubts that dog you all night long
With "35," Mary Cutrufello has found her voice...again...faced her doubts, and made the best record of her career.