Cutler and the Men of Great Courage play the Updike Room Friday
By Chris Parker
Mark Cutler is what in the music business they call a lifer. The former frontman of local legends The Schemers and Boston roots rock act The Raindogs, Cutler stepped away from the spotlight, but never put the guitar down, and in turn it’s never let him down. “Music has always been a big part of my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Cutler.
He’s played guitar since he was 10, got an education from his siblings’ records, and was empowered not so much by guitar heros as the guy down the street, an experience that may have influenced his recent endeavors in musical outreach.
“His name was Mike Lennon and I saw him play … a real cool guitar solo with a fuzz box. And I said, Well, you don’t have to be Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix to play lead guitar,” Cutler recalls. “You can be the guy down the street. So I took it from him and kept learning things from people as I went along.”
Cutler enjoyed regional success in the local new wave act/power pop act, the Schemers in the mid-’80s, then left to form the Raindogs, who landed a deal for Warner Brothers imprint Atco in the ‘90s. Their second album, 1991’s Border Drive-In, was produced by Don Gehman, who recorded numerous John Mellencamp albums, and R.E.M.’s 1986 breakthrough album Lifes Rich Pageant.
Border Drive-In was unique for its time, employing hip-hop beats within a folk approach, something David Grey and Beth Orton would do to greater commercial acclaim a few years later. It also featured spoken word parts by Iggy Pop and Harry Dean Stanton.
“I’m a big fan of hip hop. I think it’s folk music of the present generation,” Cutler says. “That’s why the Raindogs tried to apply some hip-hop techniques to our second album. It probably should have waited until the third album, but you know, I was excited about it at the time.”
Good thing he did, because as it turns out, there would never be a third album. Between label troubles and the birth of his son, Cutler wound up leaving the music business, and sort of fell bass ackwards into computers at almost the perfect moment. “I got myself a full time job and I was teaching guitar,” Cutler says. “Then one of my students asked me if I wanted to join his software company, and do QA. And I said, ‘Sure. What’s QA?’”
“When my son graduated college, I quit the job and started going back into music full time. I never left music, I was always recording, I was always playing, but it was tough,” says Cutler, who populated his home studio with great gear afforded by the day job. “I didn’t want to gamble with my son’s life. I wanted to make sure he had health insurance and a college education. I wanted to make sure he was taken care of.”
Then, after returning to music, he almost had it all taken away by a throat cancer diagnosis. During this challenging time friends and colleagues rallied to him and held benefits on his behalf. Cutler discovered who his friends were and it was a larger circle than he imagined.
“It was like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer attending their own funerals,” Cutler says. “You don’t get to experience that, and that was something really beautiful.”
Indeed, he calls the entire experience one of the best things that’s ever happened to him.
“I always felt like I appreciated things, but I really appreciated how much people could be giving, and also just breathing in and enjoying a moment, even how something tastes, because I lost my sense of taste for a few years because of the cancer and the treatment,” Cutler says. “Then I had open heart surgery within a year of that, so I was out of commission [for] a couple of years. Then the pandemic came in, and, you know, we were all in the same boat.”
He’s continued to record and release music, the latest of which is 2017’s Travel Light. Also, when he first returned to music full-time, he went about it mindfully. “I came up with a plan of what I wanted to do and like I had to come up with core values,” he says. “One of them was being creative. One of them was contributing to society.”
Cutler realized there might be another way to share his gift beyond teaching guitar and writing songs – he could teach people to write their own songs, feeding the artist in everyday people. He called it the Same Thing Project.
“It’s about getting people who never wrote songs, getting a bunch of strangers together, to communicate and write a song together and collaborate, let go of their egos and, you know, come up with some commonalities,” he says.
They meet every Tuesday from 10 a.m. until noon at the Outsider Collective (1005 Main Street in Pawtucket) to craft songs. Cutler has taken the idea on the road as well, going to colleges and meeting with groups of students. Some of the songs they’ve crafted together have been collected on an album.
“This is a place where people who haven’t, or who feel like they don’t have a creative bone in their body, can be creative,” Cutler says. “Then at the end of the day, at the end of the session, they’re a songwriter, because you write a song, you’re a songwriter.”
Be careful though, spend too much time with Mark Cutler and you might catch a life-long passion.
Mark Cutler & the Men of Great Courage play the Updike Room on Friday, February 24 around 9pm. $10. 162 Main Street, East Greenwich, RI. (401) 884-4200.