Mary Cutrufello hardly matches typical music-industry expectations of the Next Big Thing.
The 28-year-old singer and songwriter, after all, is a Yale graduate (in American Studies) who grew up middle class in Connecticut and five years ago relocated to Texas for an informal education in that state's musical roots.
Cutrufello, simply put, is a dreadlocked black woman guitarist who plays rock & roll as if the music were a statement of faith for a believer baptized in the glories of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones and John Mellencamp. Which it is.
"This is what I do," she says by telephone from a tour stop in Jackson, Miss. "This is the music that moves me. This is the music that moved me when I was younger and trying to figure out how I fit into the world. I like songs that are played with passion and a belief in the power of the mere playing of the song to mean something in people's lives. It may not always be what the tastemakers are calling the thing for this year."
Cutrufello, gathering steady acclaim for "When the Night is Through," her major-label debut, found her way to the guitar at age 9. The singer, an African-American adopted by white parents, was exposed to Broadway show tunes and musical theater at home. But she found greater solace in the songs heard on New York City's WNEW, then the area's dominant rock outlet.
"It was really important for me to discover that there was this great music that everybody I knew was listening to," she says. "We could all speak the same language.
"You'd get a sense that people all over the tri-state area were listening to the same stuff and getting the same message. We were all part of the community of rock & roll. Where I grew up, Springsteen was everybody's local hero, the one who spoke for us all in a regional sense."
Cutrufello maintained her passion for the music while at Yale, playing in a popular campus group, the Cement Shoes Blues Band, that specialized Little Feat and Allman Brothers covers and originals in a similar vein.
After graduation, many of her friends went on to graduate school, law school, or medical school. Instead of the path of least resistance, she chose a trip to the Lone Star state.
"I wanted to become a professional musician," she says. "I wanted to play guitar for a living. I was very aware that that (college band) was a big-fish-in-a-small-pond situation. I kind of wanted to concentrate on how to entertain a crowd when your rent depends on it."
The musician also wanted to soak up lots of the sounds -- country, blues, Texas folk, conjunto -- she hadn't had a chance to take in while in the Northeast.
"I grew up in Connecticut, and there's just not that wide a variety of music," she says. "In Texas, there was so much music that I'd never heard anything like before. I jumped in with both feet."
Cutrufello rapidly worked her way into twang circles in Texas, playing hole-in-the-wall clubs in the country as well as up-scale joints in Austin, Dallas and Houston, where she eventually settled.
She played lead guitar with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, wowed industry types at a Nashville showcase, and was signed to Mercury last year following a performance at the South By Southwest conference in Austin.
"When the Night is Through," recorded in Los Angeles, was produced by Thom Panunzio, an engineer on Springsteen's "Born to Run" who has worked with U2, Lone Justice and Black Sabbath. The personnel assembled for the disc includes several rock veterans -- drummers Kenny Aronoff and Jim Keltner, bassist Bob Glaub, and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee.
"I talked with a lot of producers," she says. "Thom and I saw eye to eye on what a rock & roll record should be like. We both agreed that it should be full of songs that had meaning and have meat on them that you could return to time and time again."
The songs, indeed, offer the kind of depth that allow their author much to work with, and potential for new revelations with every performance. These are pieces packed with characters -- a girl leaving town in the anthemic "Tonight's the Night," a victim of emotional exhaustion on "Tired & Thirty," a rejected lover on "Sad, Sad World" -- who resemble folks you might have met.
"I'm interested in creating characters that we all know, like the guy you meet at happy hour every Thursday, or the woman at the office that's just so sweet and maybe the boss gives her flowers on secretary's day and she gets a little teary," she says. "I'm not interested in putting my diary to music. My life isn't any more or less interesting than anyone else's. It's not the Mary Cutrufello show. 'What do you think about my tortured life?' Who cares?"
Cutrufello, according to reports, is making the most of her music, with the help of a hard-rocking group that includes bassist Roland Denny and drummer Dana Myzer (both from Texas) and former E-Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici.
"We go out and rock no matter how many people are there," she says. "Playing rock & roll is a lot of fun. Now I'm on the road I do it almost every day, but you can't count on it. It's a special thing, and I'm happy to share it with whoever wants to come out and see it."