Lone Justice’s ‘New’ Album: Fresh Cowpunk, 30 Years Later

Good news: One of the most feisty, fun, rip-roaring country albums of all time has just been released. And it only took 30 years for it to finally come out, but don’t let that put a crimp in your two-step. The collection of vintage demos that’s been dubbed This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983 sounds as fresh as the day it was made, regardless of the three decades of dust that gathered on songs like “Dust Bowl Depression” before it saw the light of day.

The band itself is hardly an unknown quantity: Lone Justice’s official self-titled debut on Geffen Records two years after these tapes were made drew scads of press and MTV attention, and the group even landed a coveted spot on a U2 tour, with Maria McKee touted as a breakout star. But that album represented a compromise between the band’s original, country-er sound and the more mainstream rock direction favored by the label. These earlier demo sessions, recorded live to tape over two days, represent what Lone Justice’s first album would have been in an ideal world where cowpunk was allowed to walk the earth. There was no such thing as an “Americana” scene in ’83, but thanks to the roots-rock movement that subsequently took off, early LJ may sound more of-the-moment now than they did at the time… which is to say, before their time.

“I was in Nashville last year for the Americana Festival with Alabama Shakes, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller and all these folks,” says Marvin Etzioni, the band’s bass player and co-writer, making the case for how contemporary This is Lone Justice sounds. “Can you tell me that if Lone Justice closed the night with a couple of songs from this record, people would walk out? You’ve got to be kidding me. No, it’d be like ‘We’re gonna do "Nothing Can Stop" now’ — bang!

Etzioni was the one who lobbied to finally make these thrilling sessions into a real record instead of just a bootleg. “I’ll take blame or credit for holding onto this thing for 30 years,” he says, of what has unexpectedly become an archival Omnivore release. “Over the years I’d go to a friend’s studio and experiment with sequencing. Finally this year, when, sadly, George Jones passed away, I put on [Lone Justice’s cover of the Jones tune] ‘Nothing Can Stop,’ and I thought, well, there’s our opener.”

“This was the unspoiled, undiluted idea of what we were doing,” guitarist/co-founder Ryan Hedgecock says of the Vaught sessions, which were recorded over two days with no overdubs. “(Producer Jimmy) Iovine had not come in; Geffen had not come in; the worst we had at that point was just terrible management. The sound was a real reflection of Los Angeles, which had the only punk scene that evolved into an actual country scene. If you think about it, none of the other punk scenes gave us Dwight Yoakam or set the stage for Lucinda Williams. What we were doing at that point, that hybrid mix of punk and rockabilly and country, was a magical mix that we didn’t even understand. Our fans loved it, and they went out to spread the word like disciples. And when the Geffen records came out, they weren’t that, and there was a lot of disappointment. To me, this is a thank-you to the fans to let them know that, yeah, there was magic when you saw us, and here it is, untouched by the powers that be that came afterwards.”

Says McKee, “Our sound was really pretty traditional, in the early days. It had a punk-rock energy, but it was way rooted in tradition, in the songwriting. When you think about rock & roll, you go where the cool factor is. And for us at that time, there was nobody cooler than Merle Haggard and George Jones. To us, they were punk-rock. They were the ultimate outlaw rock & roll personalities — more than anybody that we were seeing at that time, apart from our local punk-rock heroes. I knew I wasn’t going to sing punk-rock, because I didn’t have that kind of voice. So we wanted to take it to another level and merge the two.”

The voice McKee did have was that of a young Dolly Parton, reincarnated while she still walked the earth and transmuted into the slender body of an 18-year-old Beverly Hills girl. Parton herself came down to one of the group’s earliest club shows and offered her seal of approval — something she repeated 30 years later when she contributed an endorsement for the new album’s liner notes, calling McKee “the greatest girl singer any band could ever have.” Of the night Dolly came down, McKee says, “I remember it was on the evening news when it happened. That’s how unusual it was. And there was nobody there, but she was there, in the front, yelling and screaming at me!”

When it comes to the 1983 recordings finally coming out, McKee is slightly less effusive than her former bandmates, perhaps because her 25-year solo career has represented a gradual shift away from country, roots, and Americana. “I’m gonna be honest with you: I don’t sit around and listen to Lone Justice,” she says with a laugh. “It’s sweet that there’s something that I did when I was 18 that people appreciate. How many people get to say that? It’s a nice time capsule. For me, preferentially, if I were going to sit around and listen to some songs I wrote, I don’t know if I would choose this. But it’s definitely nice to capture that era, because it was a new genre being created, and that’s something to be proud of. Here we are, 30-odd years later, and people still care about and want to hear Lone Justice.”

Lone Justice came about as a result of Hedgecock getting fed up with leading L.A. rockabilly bands and looking for something equally retro but emotionally richer. The turning point for him came when George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” became a huge hit. “I was heartbroken at the time,” he explains. “My girlfriend Leslie had left me, and I was going out to see the Clash at night while I was listening to George Jones on KLAC on the radio driving to college during the day. Country struck me as something that I could actually grow into. Rockabilly was always just about guys and chicks and dancing; you couldn’t deal with divorce or death or those deeper human emotions that we all start to feel. I also liked the whole vibe of country, like Fan Fair — that people weren’t rock stars but just people that played music, and their fans were their friends. I liked that it wasn’t so us-and-them…I even went to a barber my uncle used to go to, to have him give me a flat top, because I was so into George Jones and those early Starday records. And nobody else was. It was my own little secret. When I told people about it, they laughed — and I was perfectly okay with that. But then with Maria, she got it.”

Etzioni concurs about the lack of a country scene in L.A. when they first started. He actually got drafted as their bassist — after having signed on initially just as a producer and co-writer — because they couldn’t find anybody else, even after advertising. “There was a lack of curiosity [about country] at the time,” he recalls. “In early '83, we’d ask (prospective) musicians, ‘What are you guys into? We’re into Creedence and Fogerty and Hank Williams.’ They’d go, ‘I just got the Dokken record. Who’s John Fogerty?’ ‘Thanks for calling!’ Now, by the time I left the group two years later, there were literally a hundred guys standing outside the door. Who wouldn’t want to be in that band? But two years before, we could not find a single guy.”

Lone Justice also looked the part at the time, posing for sepia photographs in Western wear as they sang about the Dust Bowl. Were they precocious kids trying on vintage country like an outfit, or old souls who came to it naturally? The former members don’t entirely agree on that.

“I think it was dress-up,” says McKee. “My brother (Bryan McLean, of the ‘60s band Love) and I used to watch Coal Miner’s Daughter all the time, and I was obsessed with Dorothea Lange’s photographs. I’ve always kind of been into theatrics, let’s face it. And it was almost like a theater project, getting the costume on and really evoking that time. For me, that Lone Justice girl was a character. I mean, I went to Beverly High. I do have relatives who are hillbillies, but I’m not that. I’m old California, so my hillbillies were in Riverside County and San Bernardino. They grew up in the hills, but they weren’t Appalachian… For me, it was really cinematic. I remember wanting the Lone Justice experience to be almost like a Peter Bogdanovich movie. Addie Pray [from Paper Moon] was a big influence on my image of the band! I guess it’s like those kids that dress up like anime. But it was with the utmost love, respect, and honor that we’d do it.”

But Hedgecock insists they had a legitimate right to claim their country roots. “My grandma was a big Lefty Frizzell fan. In high school, when all my friends were into Foreigner and Styx, I got completely into bluegrass music. And by the time I was starting Lone Justice, I had been on the case taking slap-picking lessons. This is just what I respond to. I’m like a retarded dog with a bone: I just don’t let it go. Everything that I’ve done since then has always been about messing with country music.” He further contends: “When you look back, country music is the indigenous music of Los Angeles. It pretty much lost its thread in the ‘50s, as Los Angeles became more urbanized, but this was the home of Western music, and it was full of hillbilly bars. I think that there’s a reason Dave Alvin feels like a Western singing star from the ‘50s, and John Doe has this whole country vibe to him. Everybody who’s here has kind of been affected by it. Look at the Byrds, and what did they become? A country band — and out of the Byrds, you got the Flying Burrito Brothers. Then you come to us. All those contemporary music things eventually start to give in to the indigenous music.”

One thing country had in common with rock in 1983: neither genre had a lot of fiery “girl singers.” Although Hedgecock started out being Lone Justice’s co-lead singer, he didn’t mind ceding that role as he recognized what they had in McKee. “When I saw how good Maria was, I really pushed her into the forefront,” he says. “I was so into having a real rock & roll kind of band with a woman who could f---ing stand up there and go head to head with anybody. I thought one of the great things we were doing was really empowering women. I mean, there was Chrissie Hynde, who was amazing, and then there was Pat Benatar and that whole thing, but there weren’t a whole lot of other female singers fronting bands like that.”

Etzioni recalls that “Maria only stopped playing guitar on one song in the early days, which was ‘Rattlesnake Mama.’ It was like, okay, you can only do that once — we’ve gotta keep this guitar noise going.” But he knew the voice was the thing. “As a songwriter, to hear Maria McKee sing a song of mine? Have you got something better than that? Put it in a bottle and send it over! There ain’t nothing better than that. And that’s 30 years later I’m saying that.” McKee was an almost spookily fully formed songwriter herself at 18, as evidenced by "Soap, Soup and Salvation," a track shared between the new release and the first Geffen album.

The band spent two days at the Vaught studio in December 1983 laying down the 12 tracks heard on the new release (plus one other, a cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” that isn’t included). Amazingly, as complete an album as This is Lone Justice sounds, it didn’t even include some of the best songs in their set at the time, since they’d already done demos of tunes like “You Are the Light” and “Don’t Toss Us Away” months earlier and just wanted to let Geffen hear their newer stuff. Listening to the unearthed sessions now, it’s impossible to imagine any label execs not being blown away by the group’s preternatural prowess and stylistic assuredness. And yet…

“We turned it into Geffen and they pretty much just laughed at it,” Hedgecock recalls. “They were like, ‘Yeah, this is great for you guys, but no, this is not what we’re doing.’ It was just completely disregarded. I remember giving it to our A&R person, and she was like, ‘I don’t know what the f--- you guys are doing.’ But we were like, well, it sounds like us! A good manager like Paul McGuiness would have gone in there and just said, ‘Hey, send them in with T Bone Burnett, give ‘em five days to record it, schedule a couple of overdubs, and we’re putting it out just like this.’ And that would have been the smart thing to do. But we were young, and as we all know, hindsight is 20/20.”

In the second part of our interview with the former members of Lone Justice, we’ll explore what happened when serious work did get underway on the Geffen debut, as well as what McKee, Hedgecock, and Etzioni are up to today.