As the first batch of regulars arrived in the sun-brightened White Squirrel Bar last week, Trevor McSpadden pointed out the most glaring difference between Texas audiences and the crowds he's played to since moving to Minnesota three years ago.
"I hear a lot of them say, 'I don't really like country music, but I like what you do,'" he said.
With the same delicate slice as her guitar solos, Mary Cutrufello interjected, "I've been hearing that same thing for 30 years."
Both ex-Texans, McSpadden and Cutrufello moved to Minnesota decades apart but wound up meeting at just the right time: during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their first gig was on the front porch of McSpadden's house in St. Paul.
Three years after that introduction and two years since the opening of their "home base," St. Paul's White Squirrel Bar — celebrating its second anniversary next week — the two Texas exes have settled into the coolest happy-hour gig in the Twin Cities.
The Tuesday night affairs at the White Squirrel are modeled after the Saturday night sets the two musicians used to play at or attend in dance halls around Texas.
They toss around vintage country covers, from Waylon and Willie to Moe Bandy and lesser-known songwriters that even the Current's Bill DeVille might have to look up. Some fine original tunes are sprinkled into the mix, too, as are bad jokes and cool guitar jams.
Once a buzzed-about alt-twanger and Americana rocker who recorded for Mercury Records and played "The Tonight Show" in the late-'90s, Cutrufello moved to St. Paul from Texas in 2001 after losing her record deal to mass corporate cuts.
McSpadden knew all about her from his first forays into Texas bars and honky-tonks as a teen in the late 1990s.
"She was near the top of the heap in my mind," said the son of renowned Texas photographer Wyatt McSpadden (you've never seen smoked meat look more glorious than in Wyatt's "Texas BBQ" books).
After a long stint performing with the Hoyle Brothers in Chicago — including a couple of jaunts to the Twin Cities to play with the Cactus Blossoms — Trevor wound up moving to St. Paul with his public defender wife and three young kids in January 2020. Yep, just before the world shut down.
"I just started playing on my front porch, which became a weekly thing over the summer [of 2020] with the neighbors showing up to watch," McSpadden recounted.
"It became a real enough gig that I got up the nerve to invite Mary, since I knew — like most musicians at the time — she probably didn't have another gig."
Suffering from vocal troubles in recent years after a couple of decades of playing the roaring frontwoman, Cutrufello was happy to be invited, and to play more of a sidewoman role.
"It was instantaneous," she said. "Even though we're 10 years apart in age, we came up through the same rooms in Texas and have a lot of the same touch points. We speak the same musical language."
Said McSpadden, "From the beginning, we would play these songs the same way. Starting and stopping them in the same places and embellishing them the same way.
"From the first time we did it, it was like, 'OK, we're just going to keep doing this together every week from now on.'"
When the COVID quarantine finally ended, the duo could find somewhere besides the front porch to play every week. Along came the White Squirrel Bar, an antique-wood-lined, classic watering hole that was opened just as lockdown ended by the operators of the 331 Club and Amsterdam Bar & Hall in a historic building along W. 7th Street.
Last week's performance kicked off right at 6 p.m. with a revved-up version of George Jones' "Walk Through This World With Me." From there, McSpadden and Cutrufello worked their way through Connie Smith/Harlan Howard's "Too Many Rivers," the George Strait-popularized oldie "Drinking Champagne" and the Waylon/Billy Joe Shaver classic "You Ask Me To."
On this particular week, drummer Greg Schutte joined in (from Ryan Bingham's and Chastity Brown's bands), as he will do more often this summer. Most weeks at the White Squirrel, though, the duo is joined only by bassist Dan Lowinger — who happens to be an ace guitar player himself from the Cole Diamond Band and Honky-Tonk Jump.
"It's so much fun playing with them, even though I'm not playing my first instrument of choice," said Lowinger, who also noted the venue's key role. "We all live near here, and it's somewhere we'd hang out even if we weren't playing."
A regular who's there just about every Tuesday, attorney and Silverdome Dome Ballroom owner Doug Myren said, "They've really developed a cool scene here.
"It's not just about the music, but the music is the overriding factor. There really aren't many places in town anymore where you can go hear great classic country like this every week."
With the start of summer, there are now a lot more chances to hear McSpadden and Cutrufello other days of the week. They've lined up a series of outdoor gigs in the spirit of their old porch shows, including the kickoff night for the Lowertown Sounds series in downtown St. Paul's Mears Park on Thursday at 6 p.m. — after which they return to the White Squirrel for the bar's official second anniversary party later that night.
Other dates include the Taste of Canterbury at Canterbury Park on Saturday night, a St. Paul Saints pregame set on June 7 and the Gardens of Castle Rock concert series in Northfield on June 14.
Happy to be playing music full time again — if only as a part-time singer — Cutrufello said, "I enjoy being a frontperson, but I also like being able to focus on the one job of playing guitar instead of having to run the whole show."
Said McSpadden, "We're really not doing anything groundbreaking. If you go to Austin, there might be 50 people doing what we're doing on any given Saturday night."
Sure, but these two clearly have a lock on Tuesday nights in St. Paul.
Trevor McSpadden & Mary Cutrufello
Every Tuesday: 6-8 p.m., White Squirrel Bar, 974 W. 7th St., St. Paul, free.
Lowertown Sounds: 6 p.m. Thu., Mears Park, 221 E. 5th St., St. Paul, free.