'98's Best: Mary Cutrufello Sings Praises Of Righteous Rock

Songwriter with major-label debut is as avid an earnest-music fan -- and player -- as they come.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, Feb. 4.]

Listening to rock guitarist and singer/songwriter Mary Cutrufello expound upon such academic-sounding topics as the themes of empowerment in Metallica songs, it's hard not to think of her ivory-tower background at Yale University.

But her ability to converse on all matters rock actually stems from a morning-noon-and-night radio obsession as a kid.

"For me, rocking is meaning what you say," Cutrufello said from a recent tour stop in support of her recently released major-label debut album, When the Night Is Through. "The bands that rock, in the way I'm using the word, are the bands that are righteous. They mean what they say, and they write things they can stand behind with passion and conviction. To me, that's the definition of rock."

Deep down, Cutrufello, 27, is simply as avid a fan of earnest-rock music as they come. In some respects she's a rare breed. Even as the cynicism of grunge lingers on and mixes with the synthesized sound of electronica, Cutrufello said she believes in notions such as "the promise of rock 'n' roll."

Since its release in August, the roots-rocky When the Night Is Through has been winning kudos, not only for the earthy musical kick of such barroom rockers as "Tonight's the Night" (RealAudio excerpt), but also for character-driven pieces such as "Sister Cecil" and the raw "Goodnight Dark Angel" (RealAudio excerpt). On the latter, a stuttering beat underscores the unstable, shocked state of a woman who's trying to make sense of a lover who has murdered a prostitute before killing himself.

The album is solidly stamped with Cutrufello's imprint as the songwriter, singer and lead guitarist. Even though she's currently touring the club circuit, her voice sounds made for arenas, vacillating between a deep, belting growl and a rich throatiness that detractors might call over-singing. Her lick-heavy guitar playing, meanwhile, reflects a 1996 road stint as lead picker for country-songwriter Jimmy Dale Gilmore, as well as her own interest in country, which stretches back several years.

As a kid growing up in suburban Connecticut, Cutrufello found her connection to the larger world through radio stations such as the New York rock outlet WNEW-FM. It was her love for such rock songsmiths as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and John Mellencamp that inspired her to begin penning her own tunes.

But it was the live-rock experience that helped her find a sense of community, beginning with her first concert, an early-'80s show by legends James Brown and Wilson Pickett. "Everybody went to the same place together -- band and audience," she said. "That made a big impression on me as a 12-year-old. And that's the way I approach live performance: as a covenant between the artist and the audience."

Although When the Night Is Through is Cutrufello's first album, producer Thom Panuzio (Joan Jett, Springsteen) said it was surprisingly easy to make. He chalks it up to a combination of Cutrufello's road experience and intelligence, but most of all to her creative focus.

"She had a real vision of what she wanted it to sound like," Panuzio said recently.

Helping matters considerably was the collection of musicians assembled for the record. Keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty), drummer Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan) and drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, Smashing Pumpkins) are among the best in the business -- and the musicians Cutrufello grew up idolizing.

"She's very open, very sweet. But she takes control of the situation," Panuzio said. "She wasn't a new artist walking in, saying, 'Should I sound like this, should I sound like that?' "

Although the dreadlocked Cutrufello, who relocated to Texas following her Yale graduation in 1991, gravitated toward rock at a young age, the music she first listened to as a kid was show tunes. Broadway musicals may well have informed her dramatic vocal approach, but more than that, they helped her develop a purposeful, linear songwriting style.

"[Show tunes] always make sense, and they're always in the service of a plot or a larger story," she said. "Listening to those from a very early age, I'm very attuned to the story and narrative in songs."

What Cutrufello seems most attuned to, however, is the notion of work: of finding some sort of salvation from even the ugliest days if she has the opportunity to pull out a link, write down a lyric or lift up an amp.

"[Music] is closest to the core of who I am," she said. "And I believe that work, that having something to push against, is a fundamental human need."