Lone Justice - Biography
Lone Justice- an early 80s, exciting, tuneful rock band, blessed with a lead singer of undeniable talent and star power, was viewed as the cream of the city’s then-burgeoning roots-punk scene. They received a major-label contract and the blessing of some big-name luminaries – Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, U2. But Lone Justice ultimately ended up the victim of their handlers’ enormous ambitions and expectations, and the group’s career proved to be sadly meteoric.
In the day, the band’s music was saddled with the unfortunate handle of “cowpunk,” a label applied to a number of groups essaying a variety of post-punk country-rock. Lone Justice, which played its first LA shows in 1983, came up amid a variety of young outfits that drew on traditional American styles: the Blasters, who weaved country among their blues, R&B, and rockabilly influences; the Long Ryders, ex-garage rockers with a fondness for Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers; Rank & File, a Texas-bred unit co-founded by ex-LA and SF punkers Chip and Tony Kinman; Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, a loud, scary-looking punk blues band that held down Monday nights at the punk dive the Cathay De Grande; the Gun Club, a bristling punk-blues act fronted by the unpredictable Jeffrey Lee Pierce; and Los Lobos, the East LA Hispano-roots quartet. During this era, Dwight Yoakam began dividing his time between the hardcore country venue the Palomino in North Hollywood and Hollywood’s punk rock stages.
But Lone Justice emerged as the Band Most Likely To Succeed, thanks largely to the charisma of lead vocalist Maria McKee. Petite, pretty, bristling with exuberance, and possessed of a vast, turbo-powered singing voice that summoned up comparisons to Linda Ronstadt (an early supporter) and Patsy Cline, McKee had grown up singing in church and in high school musicals. She was reared in a musical family: Her half-brother was singer-guitarist-songwriter Bryan MacLean, who had authored the classic “Alone Again Or” as a member of the ‘60s LA psychedelic band Love. At the time she began exploring LA’s large neo-rockabilly scene, she was still living with her mother in the mid-city Park La Brea housing complex.
At the age of 19, McKee co-founded Lone Justice in 1983 with singer-guitarist-songwriter Ryan Hedgecock; the band’s original line-up also included bassist David Harrington and drummer Don Willens. The rhythm section was swiftly altered with the enlistment of bassist-songwriter-producer Marvin Etzioni (who had tracked the quartet’s first demos) and drummer Don Heffington, a former member of Emmylou Harris’ band. The retooled line-up immediately impressed audiences at its first LA club shows; they had performed no more than a handful of dates when Robert Hilburn, the Los Angeles Times’ influential critic, weighed in with a rave review. The band’s spunk and McKee’s coltish presence also enlisted some musician fans: Keyboardist Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers sat in at most shows, essentially becoming a fifth member of Lone Justice.
The buzz was on. Lone Justice’s appeal obviously extended beyond the boundaries of the cowpunk audience, and several major labels were soon eyeballing the band. They were ultimately signed by Geffen Records, and they were given the star treatment. Jimmy Iovine – then one of the business’ rising young producers, and today the head of Universal Music Group’s Interscope division – was brought in to produce the band. One of Iovine’s first moves was to hook up the band with Bob Dylan and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones for a recording of Dylan’s “Go Away Little Boy.” (The caustic song would go unreleased until the 1998 compilation This World is Not My Home.)
Lone Justice, the band’s debut album, arrived in the spring of 1985 on a wave of great expectations. The glossily produced album managed to capture some of the spunk and crackle of the group’s live shows (which received an additional lift with the recruitment, shortly after the conclusion of recording sessions, of guitarist Tony Gilkyson, whose work with the band went sadly unrecorded). It sported a debut single, “Ways to Be Wicked,” written by Tom Petty, and such strong tracks as the explosive “East of Eden” and “Sweet, Sweet Baby” and the ballads “Don’t Toss Us Away” (a showstopper written for McKee by her brother Bryan MacLean) and Etzioni’s lovely “You Are the Light.” But, despite high-profile touring with Petty in the US and superstars-in-the-making U2 in Europe, neither of the album’s singles ascended higher than No. 70 on the American charts. The album peaked at No. 56.
In the wake of commercial disappointment, record labels have a way of second-guessing the results, and sometimes enacting grand and catastrophic changes. Geffen Records was determined to make Lone Justice a success – even if it had to dismantle the band in the process. Not long after the release of Lone Justice, Etzioni disappeared from the line-up, to be replaced by Gregg Sutton, whose credits included a solo album on Columbia and a stint in Bob Dylan’s touring band. Hedgecock, Heffington, and Gilkyson also departed in short order. When Lone Justice gathered to record its second studio album, its new members included former Patti Smith Group keyboardist Bruce Brody, guitarist Shane Fontayne, and drummer Rudy Richman.
Shelter (1986) was co-produced by Iovine and Little Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band; what role the co-credited band of hired guns played in the production is not known. On the sophomore set, the country flavor of the group’s original material disappeared; the label clearly aspired to mainstream rock success for McKee and her cohorts. The lead-off single “Shelter,” which made it to No. 47, would not have sounded out of place on a Stevie Nicks album, while “I Found Love” was a gospel-styled ripper. Lone Justice’s change in direction proved to be for naught: Shelter climbed no higher than No. 65 – several chart slots lower than its predecessor -- during a seven-month run.
To no one’s surprise, Lone Justice called it quits in 1987. They never attained the huge success that many predicted for them, but anyone who caught them live in their early days probably still savors their lively take on country-rock, which augured the alt-country to come.
Geffen continued its efforts with McKee for almost a decade: The singer issued three unsuccessful solo albums on the label. Openly bemoaning her major-label experience, she turned to independent and self-released projects thereafter. She still sports one of rock’s most glorious voices. Etzioni has remained visible on the LA music scene, producing extensively and performing as “Marvin the Mandolin Man.” Hedgecock recorded in Parlour James with vocalist Amy Allison, daughter of jazz singer Mose Allison; after a lengthy layoff, he returned to the LA country-rock scene in the new millennium with the aberrant and entertaining solo project Rattlesnake Daddy (with which both Etzioni and Heffington have appeared). Heffington has remained active with a variety of groups. Gilkyson played with the post-Billy Zoom incarnation of the LA punk band X, and works as a solo artist today. Fontayne went on to play with Bruce Springsteen in the early ‘90s – ironically, replacing E Streeter Van Zandt for a brief spell. Sutton has enjoyed a profitable songwriting career.