By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


January 19, 2006

Cindy Bullens began her career harmonizing with Elton John and then snagged a Grammy nomination for her singing on the "Grease" soundtrack. But those pop gigs just masked her true identity: a singer-songwriter who loves to rock.

"I'm really grateful that I can write a song," Bullens says by phone from Nashville, Tenn. "But I love to rock 'n' roll. I love to strap on my electric guitar and play suspended chords like the Stones and hear the backbeat behind me and just wail away. Yeah, I'm a rock and roller, but I'm grateful that I can write lyrics."

Bullens is on the road behind her latest CD, "dream #29," and will appear Wednesday at Off Broadway. It will be a solo acoustic show, but Bullens, described by Emmylou Harris as a female Bruce Springsteen, promises that it will still rock.

The new CD features some help from her old friend Sir Elton ("I just went to his wedding," Bullens says), who plays a killer piano on the title song, as well as blues rocker Delbert McClinton on "This Ain't Love." But the biggest surprise is a contribution by her golf and music buddy -- sorry, Cardinals fans -- Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield.

In September 2004, when the Red Sox were in a pennant race and in the middle of a series with the New York Yankees, Bullens invited Wakefield into a recording studio in the shadow of Fenway Park to sing harmony tracks on one of her new songs, "7 Days," which includes a reference to Ted Williams. Wakefield nailed his part; the Red Sox won the World Series; and the CD became one of the best albums of 2005.

Bullens laughs when asked whether she takes any kind of psychic credit for Boston's "Reverse the Curse" victory.

"No, I do not, but it was a very cool thing," says Bullens, who grew up near the ocean in a town north of Boston and, despite living subsequently in Los Angeles and now part time in Nashville, remains a staunch Sox and New England Patriots fan. "You can't not be a Red Sox fan if you were born and raised in New England."

Bullens is riding a career renaissance that grew out of a therapeutic burst of songwriting after her daughter Jessie Bullens-Crewe died, at age 11, of cancer in 1996. Those songs became the 1999 CD "Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth," a collection of raw, moving and inspirational tunes about loss, grief and carrying on with life.

"Somewhere" was followed two years later by "Neverland," a solid rock album that, like its predecessor, showcased Bullens' ability to write joyful rock songs about adult themes. It features "Sensible Shoes," a glorious rocker about not taking life the easy way.

Bullens' first public appearance came in 1968 at the King's Rook Coffee House in Ipswich, Mass., where she recalls performing covers of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun." But in the early '70s, she took off for stardom in Los Angeles, where she met John after crashing a party for singer Neal Sedaka. She sang backup and harmony on three of Sir Elton's tours, on the "Blue Moves" album and on John's 1976 No. 1 hit, "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart." In 1979, she married Dan Crewe and began her solo career with the hit song "Survivor."

She took more than a decade off from recording and performing to take care of their daughters Jessie and Reid, now 23. During this period, Bullens kept up her writing, but it was Jessie's death and the "Somewhere" album that rekindled her life as an artist.

"I believe that record is my legacy," Bullens says. "That is purely from my soul. I didn't write it for anybody else. I didn't care if anybody heard it. I did it for me. It was a gift to me and I believe it was inspired by my daughter. The wonderful thing about it is that it has touched people all over the world."

Today Bullens splits her time between homes in Nashville, where she works and writes, and on the Maine coast ("I need the ocean; I need the salt"). Her touring and recording help fund the Jessie Bullens-Crewe Foundation and the Jessie Fund. The foundation helps children's education in the fields of environment, theater, and arts and sciences. The fund raises money for pediatric cancer research and "to help with the psychological and social needs families have when a child has cancer."

"('Somewhere') really gave me purpose, and I'm very grateful for having done those songs," she says. "They continue to inspire me -- 'I Gotta Believe in Something,' 'Boxing With God,' 'In Better Hands.' Oh yeah, I can do this. Or, I need to do this. Being a bereaved parent is a lifetime ordeal."